Jesus Decides to Redeem His Wasted Life (Sunday’s Homily)

Readings for Feast of Baptism of the Lord: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/011313.cfm

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In that context, let’s think about baptism and the differences between the understandings we’ve inherited and those reflected in the practice of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. Those differences hold practical implications for our own lives as we wrestle with a faith that may have lost meaning for us, and as we struggle with the relative smallness and insignificance of our lives.

To begin with, think about traditional beliefs about baptism. If you’re like me, you may find them hard to swallow. A friend of mine, theologian Tony Equale, has recently pointed out that theology doesn’t really determine worship patterns. Instead superstitious temple and church rituals have shaped our beliefs. Practice determines belief, not the other way around. (See http://tonyequale.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/the-religiosity-of-the-people/)

What my friend means is that theology’s job has traditionally been to rationalize what people actually do in their efforts to tame life and achieve contact with the numinous, the mysterious, and the transcendent. They sacrifice chickens, behead bullocks, or vivisect lambs and then burn the animals’ carcasses. The smoke thus ‘feeds’ the Gods who are believed to need nourishment, placation, and cajoling in order to do the will of the people and their priests. Those congregations actually turn out to be more intelligent than the God who must be informed of their needs and what is best for their welfare. That’s superstition.

Catholic beliefs around baptism and the “sacrifice of the Mass” are cases in point. They were actually formed by the People’s credulous practice of baptism which was informed more by ancient ideas of all-powerful angry Gods than by Jesus’ radical teaching that God is Love. I mean early on, in a time of very high rates of infant mortality, popular belief came to see infant baptism as necessary to somehow save deceased children from a hell created by a threatening God.

This practice of the people rather than reflection on the words and deeds of Jesus led St. Augustine at the beginning of the 5th century to theorize that people have been born guilty – at enmity with God. Augustine thought that since children were condemned even before any personal sin on their parts, they must be born in sin. And that must be, Augustine reasoned, because they had inherited sin from their forebears and ultimately from the first human beings, Adam and Eve. Because of that “original sin,” God is justly angry with humans.

Now, as I said, the ancients believed that sacrifice was necessary to placate an angry God like that. So, in the Roman world, where sacrifice was understood in the terms I’ve just explained, Jesus’ death eventually became to be seen as a sacrifice whose primary purpose was to secure God’s approval of the Roman state. In this way, the “Mass” was transformed from a memorial meal to a re-enactment of Jesus’ sacrificial death. It was moved from a table with friends gathered around sharing food, to a “sacrifice” performed at an “altar” by a priest with his back turned to the people who watched the show from afar.

This Mass differed very little from what Romans were used to before Christianity became the state’s official religion in 381. In fact, it is entirely possible that ordinary people saw no difference between the “Mass” and the religious ritual they had been accustomed to when Jupiter or Mithra were worshipped as the official Gods of Rome. In other words, Christianity was transformed by the Roman Empire rather the empire being transformed by Christianity. There was a “theogony,” a battle of the Gods, between Jupiter and the Bible’s Yahweh; and Jupiter won. We’ve been worshipping him ever since.

How different all this is from what happens to Jesus at the baptism which today’s liturgy of the word celebrates! (And that brings me to my point about meaning in our seemingly wasted lives.) In today’s gospel, there is nothing suggesting “original sin.” Nor is Jesus presented as the incarnation of a God who needs to be mollified by sacrifice. Rather, Jesus comes as a disciple of John. (Scripture scholars tell us that John’s words about his inferiority before Jesus were inventions of the early church in a Jewish context where many still believed that John rather than Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.)

So at the age of 30 or so, this young peasant from Nazareth presents himself for a ritual washing at the prophet’s hands in the legendary Jordan River. In Israel’s idealized past, that river had been crossed by slaves escaped from Egypt who on the river’s opposite shore found the “Promised Land” that became their national home. Eventually that crossing came to be understood as transforming a motley horde of renegade slaves into a unified nation of free people at the service of the God who had liberated them from demeaning servitude.

John’s practice of baptism in the Jordan (far from the corruption of the priests’ Temple and its endless sacrifices) summoned his Jewish contemporaries to reclaim their ancient identity that had been lost by the priests and scribes who had sold out to Roman re-enslavement of a once proud and liberated people.

John’s was a revivalist movement of Jewish reform. Those presenting themselves for baptism were expressing a desire to return to their religious roots and to alter their lives in a profound way.

Evidently, that’s why Jesus came to be baptized too. This country boy who (according to Luke’s “infancy narratives”) had begun his life with such promise is now about 30 years old. Perhaps in view of his parents’ expectations of him, his life so far seemed wasted. Perhaps he had resolved to finally make a difference. In any case, by approaching John in the Jordan’s waters, he expresses an intense need for change in his life. He wants to be John’s follower.

So John performs his baptismal ritual. And the miraculous happens. An epiphany occurs for Jesus. He hears a voice. It informs him that he is a child of God. Immediately he sets out on a vision quest to discover what those words might mean. Forty days of prayer and fasting bring on the visions – of angels and devils, of temptations, dangers and possibilities.

In the light of his desert experience, Jesus chooses not only to follow John as the leader of a reform movement. He chooses as well to follow Moses as the liberator of an enslaved people. He has truly crossed the Jordan. So he brings his message to the captive poor. Like him, they too are children of God — God’s specially chosen people. God’s kingdom belongs to them, he says, not to their rich oppressors. The poor must not allow themselves to be misled by the stultifying and domesticating doctrines of the priests and scribes. That was the thrust of Jesus’ teaching.

Coherent acts follow Jesus’ words. He discovers wondrous healing powers within himself. By touch, by faith, by his friendship, he cures stinking lepers, dirty beggars, street walkers who have lost their self-respect, the deaf, the dumb, the blind and lame. Jesus eats food with the social outcasts and street people of his day, sharing nourishment the way God does – without cost or expectation of reciprocation. Jesus finds himself explaining the mysterious, transcendent and ineffable in unforgettable stories that capture the imaginations of simple people hungry for the spiritual sustenance that he offers – that he embodies. No wonder his early followers tried to imitate Jesus by choosing John’s baptism as a sign of membership in their community and by following the Master’s example of sharing food the way God does in their re-enactment of the Lord’s Supper.

That was the understanding of baptism and Lord’s Supper that the first generations of Christians embraced. But it didn’t last long. Within a few generations (and especially after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire at the end of the 4th century) the superstitions I referenced earlier had replaced the understanding and practice of Jesus and the Baptist. Soon baptism became an instrument for saving babies from original sin and hell. Soon the Lord’s Supper became the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” differing very little in ritual and spirit from offerings to Jupiter and Mithra.

Today’s liturgy of the word calls us beyond all of that. It summons us to follow Jesus who shows us the way to truly change our lives. Change comes by leaving behind the superstitious faith that supports empires past and present. Transformation comes when we share our food with each other and with the poor. It happens by committing ourselves to the “other world” represented by God’s Kingdom that has room for everyone, not just for the 1% served by our own churches, priests, scribes and their superstitious rituals.

Today’s liturgy of the word summons us to the banks of the Jordan to stand with Jesus and to hear God’s voice calling us from what has been so far wasted in our lives. Like Jesus, we are daughters and sons of God. We are beloved by the God of Love. Jesus’ example reminds us that It’s not too late to change our commitments and way of life.

After all (if we take our tradition literally) Jesus redeemed the insignificance of his own life in a single meaningful year – or maybe it was three.

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

7 thoughts on “Jesus Decides to Redeem His Wasted Life (Sunday’s Homily)”

  1. A few comment on today’s fascinating blog.

    Whereas rituals, such as “table fellowship” were subsumed into the rituals of the Catholic Church, such a comfortable adoption is natural, humanistic, and hardly surprising. This proves nothing about the validity or efficacy of the rituals. Tossing holy water onto a crowd resembles a golf swing. The effect is real nonetheless

    Your opinion seems to be that thirty years of meditation and prayer is “wasted”. I join those billions that disagree.The scriptures we have are fragmentary. I am sure you know that John tells us that the unrecorded accomplishments of Christ would fill many books. It does not sound like a wasted life.

    You wrote “Change comes by leaving behind the superstitious faith that supports empires past and present.”

    Support?

    A balanced history tells the story of greater opposition than support of Catholicism from political entities, including empires. This opposition, often savage persecution, was interspersed by periods of peace featuring uneasy truces. Remember Cannosa. I savor Ambrose Bierce’s definition of “Peace” as a period of cheating between two wars.

    You use the word “empire” in a manner loaded with pejorative tints. There have been few real empires. Empires have most often (correctly) sensed the subversive nature of any such centers of influence separate from that of the political rulers.

    Two recent leftist empires, the Soviet Socialist Empire and the National Socialist empire of the Nazis under Hitler murderously persecuted Christianity and Judaism.

    The more our government comes to resemble an empire, the more our government jealously suppresses religious practice and and expression.

    Like

    1. Bartolomeo, you’re right, of ourse, in your point about the validity or efficacy of the rituals. However, ritual form does make a difference. Some are more efficacious than others since they touch people’s thoughts, emotions, and souls in varying degrees. — The title of my piece referencing Jesus “wasted” life was not intended to be taken literally. Probably none of our lives are “wasted;” they’re a process in which “meaningful” actions and events (in terms of world history) are rare. I was trying to say that it seems to have been the same for Jesus. At least those who wrote of him thought that more than 90% of his life was either unknown to them or not important enough to record.

      Like

  2. Thanks Mike for another wonderful blog.
    I do feel sorry that so few get to read it and when I return to Ireland in the Summer I would like with your permission to ask one of the top dailies if they would like to carry your blog. Irish press needs this. At the moment as even the best are all crap on fashion, new movies, celebs and the juiciest scandals of the day. Fodder for the anatomized mind ripe to buy buy buy! Like NPR they never dare to say anything which might offend the advertisers.
    They would however be attracted by something as provocative as your blog and miss or disregard the fundamental traditional and deeply religious underlying theme. With your permission I may have a crack – and enlist some of the serious former Columban players who could be most influential and who maybe spinning their wheels at the mo. We all will need to go back and find the ” blame for a splendid cause” to counter-balance the present gobs open attitude to Mother Church.
    In the meantime Mike can you suggest some support reading for me on the following in your blog today:
    Jesus’ death eventually became to be seen as a sacrifice whose primary purpose was to secure God’s approval of the Roman state.
    BTW are there any formatting options in WordPress – e.g italics, spell check….in which I am weak and other basic internet add-ons

    Thanks again and I will read the link later.
    Jim

    Like

    1. Thanks for your help, Jim. I would so appreciate your efforts to expand readership of this blog. Thank you. As for sources, please do read the Tony Equale piece I referred to in the blog. Crossan has also written a rather good book on Christianity and Empire. — My statement about the primary purpose of Jesus’ sacrifice in Roman eyes was meant to refer to its political purpose in the eyes of Roman officials who were not theologians (despite hagiographic depictions of Constantine), but whose attitude towards the change to Christianity was probably “whatever . . .:” — I’m not too sure about the WordPress add-ons. As I publish each blog, they’ve been taking care of themselves (most of the time).

      Like

  3. Jim Cashman wrote: “Jesus’ death eventually became to be seen as a sacrifice whose primary purpose was to secure God’s approval of the Roman state.”

    Seen by who? This is quite an assertion. Constantine ruled from 306 to 337AD. The Roman empire was no more by 450AD. By 250AD Inner Mongolia was 100% Catholic. In the third century there were Catholics in many areas of the world outside the Roman Empire. I doubt they would agree with your assertion.

    Like

    1. Jim, I was referring to Constantine’s and Theodosius’ reasons for legalizing Christianity in 313 and 381 and for making it the state religion. As I understand it, state religion by it’s nature is connected with legitimating the state and its projects. When Christianity assumed that role, it was necessarily reflected in its liturgies (at least implicitly, but surely explicitly even as it is today in our “prayers of the faithful” for political “leaders.”). This is not to deny that there was resistance and no doubt many forms of Eucharist prior to Constantine’s incorporation of Christianity and in locales outside the the reach of the Roman Empire. We know, for instance that there was resistance to Roman ways in the East after the empire’s seat was moved to Constantinople. That resistance never died and eventually led to the East-West split. Equale’s point about ordinary people not recognizing any difference in “liturgies” before and after Constantine is intriguing.

      Like

      1. Hi Mike
        Thanks for both replies and since then I did read the link to Equale and it helps better explain the matter.
        Sorry if I may have confused Bartolomeo. Jim

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s