On Christmas Day of 1988, Walter had a strong conversion experience. Though he had been a Catholic all his life and gone to church faithfully every Sunday, he realized that it was all a show. The gospel of Jesus Christ had never really reached his heart and changed him. Deep within, he felt a need to welcome Jesus and to put him at the center of his life rather than just going through the motions.
During the weeks that followed, Walter could not read enough of the Bible. He poured over the stories of Jesus’ birth, the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, the journey of the Wise Men, Jesus’ presentation in the temple and His baptism in the Jordan River. He reflected on what it must have been like to actually be there when these mysteries took place. The more he prayed, the more determined he was to one day make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to see for himself where all these stories took place.
When he did finally have enough money saved and was able to book a trip to Israel, he began to feel excited about going to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. Like most Catholics, he was baptized as a baby. He saw this visit as a chance to renew his baptism vows as an adult and to recommit himself to his faith. In his mind, he imagined himself standing in the waters feeling his sins washed away and God’s grace rushing in.
The day he had been waiting for finally came. When the bus pulled up to the parking lot at Qasr el-Yahud, the place where tradition tells us John the Baptist baptized Jesus, Walter ran down to the bank of the river. However, what he saw surprised him. It was not the beautiful place he imagined it to be. The water was brown like coffee with not enough milk in it. Where he expected to see white sand, there were rocks and reeds. His first thought was that there was no way he was going to get into that filthy water. He just wanted to get back on the bus and return to his hotel room.
However, another thought came into his head at that moment. When Jesus came to earth, there was nothing glamorous about it. Our sinful humanity was no more appealing to God than the brown water running through the Jordan River. Yet, out of love for us, Jesus took on our human nature with its weakness and suffering. He experienced rejection, ridicule and death for us. Reflecting on this, Walter also realized what the vows of baptism mean. When he said, “I do”, it meant going with Jesus into the dark places of our world to bring His light. It meant going with Jesus into the sad places of our world to bring His joy. It meant following Jesus even when it meant getting dirty.
So, with tears in his eyes, Walter stepped into the waters of the Jordan River and renewed his baptismal vows with a full sense of what God had done for him and what he would be called to do for God and for his neighbor.
Today, we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Though sinless, Jesus submitted himself to the baptism of John the Baptist. He entered the waters of the Jordan River to purify them so that we could be baptized not just with water but with the Holy Spirit. Just as Walter realized when he stood at the banks of the river, Jesus humbled himself throughout His life on earth to bring us all the gifts of God’s love. The first gift is baptism which opens us up to faith, to the Holy Spirit and to all the other sacraments which follow.
However, as Walter also realized, our baptism is not only an occasion to get dressed up and to celebrate with family. Rather, it is a commitment we make to share Jesus’ concern for the lost and the broken. As Isaiah tells us in today’s first reading, Jesus came “to open the eyes of the blind, to bring prisoners out of confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” If Jesus is willing to stoop down and live a life of service for the poor, we must be willing to do the same or we cannot call ourselves His followers. All we would be is secret admirers.
It was also at Jesus’ baptism that the Holy Trinity revealed itself for the first time. We see Jesus, the Son, descending into the waters. We see the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Blessed Trinity, descend from heaven like a dove and alight on Jesus. Finally, we hear the voice of the Father, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” God reveals Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit through Jesus’ act of humility.
This mystery reveals to us why it is that we must seek out the needy. In serving them, we discover God. By bringing bread to the hungry, we encounter Jesus who is suffering in them. By teaching the ignorant, we feel the presence of the Holy Spirit burning within us. By embracing the lonely, we experience the embrace of our Heavenly Father who calls us His beloved daughters and sons. When we stoop down in humility to serve others as Jesus did, no matter how dirty it may get, we come face to face with the God who humbled Himself for us.
We are all searching for God. If He has seemed distant and hard to find, it could be that we are looking in the wrong places. Perhaps we are looking on the mountain tops when we should be looking in the ghettoes. Perhaps we are reading books when we should be feeding bellies. Until we are ready to get ourselves dirty, to risk our safety and to give without counting the cost, God will continue to remain elusive to us. However, if we can follow Jesus into the dark places of our world, it could just be that we will be surprised by His marvelous light shining out where we least expected to find it.