Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the Baptism of Jesus

Baptism of the Lord

Readings: Is 42:1-7; Acts 10:34-38; Lk 3:15-16, 21-22

This feast of the Baptism of the Lord signals the beginning of a transition time in the Liturgical Year. The mood shifts from one of a clear presentation of religious ideals to the murkier realm of having to put them into practice in the midst of a messy world. For the last two weeks the emphasis of the Liturgy has been on the great acts of God: the sending of a Savior or Messiah who is God’s own Son; and that this child is the manifestation of God’s majesty and glory. These are among the great religious ideals of the Christian Faith. The task now, as the Liturgy begins to remind us, is to put them into practice in our lives. That’s easier said than done.

I’m hoping that you will commend me for my restraint. All through this Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season I haven’t said one word about W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, "For the Time Being." But I’m going to break down today. At the very end of his lengthy Oratorio Auden puts a reflection into the mouth of the narrator that succinctly pinpoints the challenges of putting these ideals into practice. I can’t refrain from reading some of those lines:

"Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree, Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes—Some have got broken—and carrying them up to the attic.

The holly and mistletoe must be taken down and burnt, And the children got ready for school. There are enough Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week—

Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot, Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—To love all of our relatives, and in general Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again As in previous years we have seen the actual vision and failed To do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility, once again we have sent Him away,

Begging though to remain His disobedient servant, The promising child who cannot keep His word for long. The Christmas feast is already a fading memory."

We have seen the vision in these past weeks and failed to fully absorb it and realize it. Mostly because we have overestimated our abilities—in other words, we have not faced our weaknesses. That’s the theme of this whole transition period of the Liturgical Year: balancing the ideal religious vision with our own human limitations and failures. It’s so easy to look at one or the other by itself; but it’s so hard to keep them together in the same picture. Because, doing so, you always feel (just a little) like a hypocrite.

You know. Maybe we would do better by just admitting from the very beginning that we are hypocrites. So many of us are...really. The parents who warn their children against drinking, but who on occasion hit the bottle too hard themselves. The priest or minister who preaches a higher Christian morality to his/her congregation than he/she personally observes. The religious superior who continually admonishes all of his/her community members to a diligent regular prayer practice, knowing full well that’s the first thing that goes in his/her life when administrative duties pile up. If we admitted to ourselves regularly that we are hypocrites, it would be a lot harder to criticize anyone else...about anything. Look on the bright side. The next time someone calls you a hypocrite, you can say: "Of course, I am. We all are. But hopefully we are hypocrites trying to do better. That’s what the Christian life is all about."

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