The Baptism of the Lord
The Christmas trees and decorations have come down, the credit card bills have come in or soon will, and once again this beautiful season has come to an end and we face the challenges of a New Year. But as Christians we are left with more than our debts and happy memories of Christmas: a light has shone into our world illuminating our own lives in a way that will last if we know how to nurture it.
St. Paul sums up this message and the light it brings very simply in the second reading of today’s Mass: God’s grace has been revealed and taught us that what we have to do is give up everything that does not lead to God. It’s rather like the message of the first reading: you don’t have to do anything special, but rather to believe that just as God came to us at Christmas, so he will continually come into our lives and our world, but we do have a part to play: to prepare the way for him, to clear out the obstacles that hinder his coming, filling in the valleys and laying low the mountains.
The light that Christmas has brought us is, in other words, a light of discernment, a favourite word of Pope Francis. When we talk about discernment in the Christian life, we are usually referring to the attempt to see where things come from. Did that apparently good idea I had the other day come from God or just from my own imagination, or even from the evil one? Do my actions come from a genuine desire to love God and serve my neighbour or am I just trying to look good to others and make myself feel better? It’s not always easy to answer these questions, but that doesn’t excuse us from at least trying to discern them in what we traditionally call the examination of conscience before going to Confession, though of course not to tie ourselves up in knots as we go about it.
St. Paul suggests a different approach. Rather than examine where things come from, consider where they lead to. Does the way I relate to my family and work colleagues promote true peace and understanding, or just lead to tension? Are my habits of eating, drinking and sleeping making me healthier? If I say I want to be closer to God, do I actually take the means that will help me do that, such as regular prayer, use of the sacraments and reading Scripture?
The New Year is an excellent time for this, as we make our New Year resolutions, taking into account this way of looking at where our actions and attitudes actually lead us. Above all we can ask ourselves where we hope this New Year will lead us in our relationship to God and others. One of the great Russian Orthodox saints, St. Seraphim, puts it very simply. He came from a family of businessmen before entering a monastery, and he summed up his teaching later in these words: the aim of a businessman is to acquire wealth; the aim of a Christian is to acquire the Holy Spirit.
To acquire the Holy Spirit: what a powerful phrase. In the Gospel story of Jesus’ baptism which we heard today, Jesus is not only anointed with the Holy Spirit himself: other people in the Bible are said to have received the Holy Spirit, after all. But John the Baptist says he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit. That is, if we are willing, if we clear away the obstacles and give up everything that does not lead to God, he will come to us and give us his Spirit in abundance. It was said of St. Seraphim that he radiated such love and peace that he didn’t need to say anything, you just knew you were in the joyful presence of God when you met him and all your problems seemed to fade away. Now there’s something worth desiring for a New Year.