The Journey Begins with Prayer: The Baptism of the Lord

 The Baptism of the Lord (C)

It might seem like the most obvious thing in the world to say, but, Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer.

Throughout the Gospels Jesus is found praying with and for others, as well as seeking a quiet place to pray by himself.  He prayed before meals, before and after healings and other miracles, he prayed prayers of thanksgiving and prayed for the faith of his disciples. Jesus prayed when he had decisions to make, and taught his followers how to pray. Jesus prayed on the way to the cross, and moments before he died, Jesus breathed his final prayer.

The first prayer of Jesus’ public ministry occurred immediately after his baptism.

 “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.

And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  

—Luke 3:21-22

I wonder what Jesus was praying about, was it a prayer of thanksgiving? Discernment? Guidance?

Many people admit they don’t know how to pray on their own; they say they don’t know what to say; it feels awkward, or they aren’t sure if they are speaking to God the right way, or if they are being heard. I remember one friend who told me she doesn’t know when to “sign off” so she just sort of, ends it. Thanks! Love ya!

The variations of prayer are endless. Plus, other than the Lord’s Prayer given to us by Jesus himself, there is no one right way to pray. The best form of prayer is the one that draws us closer to God. Prayers can be contemplative or centering, a meditation or a chant, a favorite prayer said before bed or upon waking, spoken before meals, or with others during a liturgy or prayer group, to name only a few. The best prayer for me occurs when I share my hopes, fears, gratitude, or anguish with God while doing everyday tasks like cooking and gardening. Regardless of how we pray, if we open ourselves to it, we might sense a holy stillness that expresses God’s presence and love for us.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism beckons us to place ourselves in the crowd of the newly baptized and witness the moment Jesus’ earthly ministry began: with prayer. I wonder what Jesus felt when the sky opened, and the Holy Spirit filled him, and he heard God’s voice.

We can do more than wonder. Have you ever felt God’s presence in times of prayer? Perhaps you have experienced the stillness pulsing in your ears, keeping time with the chant of your heart, “beloved, beloved, beloved.” Maybe you felt the heaviness of the world dropping away, along with your words. Or a sense of well-being, unlike anything ever experienced that blankets you in lightness, and it is just you and God, and nothing else matters.

If we could remain in this state, we would. Because in that moment, which might last only a second or two, God’s delight is evident, and the Holy Spirit of God fills us, like it did Jesus. But, like Jesus, we can’t remain—we can always come back to prayer—but, for now, we must act.

Imagine hearing the words “You are my beloved (son, daughter); with you I am well pleased.” How would you respond?

Christians are baptized as infants, as children and adolescents, and as adults, as in the case of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). Regardless of the age of the person receiving the sacrament baptism is a forward moving, future-oriented event. It’s not “done and over.” It’s not the first sacramental stamp on a passport to heaven. Baptism is a fiat, a yes, a birth. What comes next is life.

Do we remember to pray for the newly baptized after the day has passed? Prayers of gratitude, discernment and spiritual guidance for ourselves and others are needed, because, with baptism, we begin our lifelong journey as disciples.

With today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we bid the Christmas season adieu. Tomorrow begins Ordinary time, a new cycle of discernment, faith formation, and spiritual growth. Let’s begin by reflecting upon Jesus’ baptism, and our baptism, and pray for guidance in the coming year, and let’s strive not only to deepen our understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus but to act upon it.

“Lord Jesus, we end our Christmas season by celebrating our rebirth in baptism. We enjoy what prophets and kings longed to see. Help us during this New Year to grow more conformed to you in our thoughts, desires, words and actions. Enable us through the Scriptures as well as through the sacraments of your food and forgiveness to grow to full maturity as your disciples.” 

—Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P.,
Prayer for the Sunday after the Epiphany,
The Baptism of the Lord

Today’s readings can be found here. .

When the end is the beginning

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

I love this time of the year. Of course I mean autumn. Yes, the growing season’s grand finale rarely disappoints, especially here in the Northeastern part of the United States where the relatively subdued trees and shrubs of summer break out in a neon-jacked riot of color. Autumn represents the colossal success of nature—a job well done. As if to say, “There, you see? This is what I’ve been working on all year.”

Autumn is a time to reflect on what we’ve been working on all year, too. In the waning and waxing hours between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, it is good to pause and think deeply about our personal growth, both intellectual and spiritual. We can ponder our little epiphanies, our joys, our sorrows, our victories and our failures, and the endings and beginnings which represent all of the above. Autumn is also a time to look forward, to make plans for the coming winter, and to renew our annual vow that this year we will keep things simple and really enjoy Christmas.

There’s another reason I love this time of year. Ecclesially (churchy business) speaking, we are drawing to the end of current year’s liturgical calendar. My fellow liturgy nerds, can I have an Amen? This weekend is the second to the last week of Year B—the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time—and next Sunday we reach the pinnacle of Ordinary Time with the Feast of Christ the King.

I loved Year B, spending time in the desert with Mark’s gospel, reflecting on Jesus’ identity and mission, why he died, what his passion meant then and what it means for us today. But I also love the gospel of Luke, which we will read in Year C (beginning January 10, 2016). I am excited to delve into the gospel writer’s emphasis on the hope, inclusivity and liberation of all people as revealed through Jesus’ life and message.

Every liturgical year starts with Advent and Christmas. In two weeks we will experience the advent (pun intended) of Year C. This is a season of anticipation, of preparation and patient waiting, of readiness and expectation of the events which have been promised. Christians prepare their hearts not only to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but to anticipate his second coming, which is the subject of weekend’s gospel [Mk 13:24-32].

The season of Advent goes by quickly. And if you aren’t attentive, the four weeks dissolve into one another. Before you know it, it’s Christmas day, or more likely, it’s the day after Christmas, and you sit there in your messy home, deflated, exhausted, and wondering what the heck just happened. How did you allow the artificial chaos of the holiday season to interfere with your plans to celebrate a real Christmas?

Endings and beginnings—the turning of seasons, a new Gospel, and a promise to do things differently this Christmas—tie into this weekend’s gospel. Yet, unlike the second coming foretold by Jesus we know exactly when the liturgical year ends and when the celebration of Jesus’ birth will be.

Jesus says “Learn a lesson from the fig tree.” [Mk 13:28a]. Mark wants his community to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ forewarning of the Temple’s destruction [13:1-2], an idea that was incomprehensible to the disciples, given the Temple’s prominence. Mark wants his community to hear Jesus’ instruction to attend to the signs [13:8], and to be ready for the coming persecution because they themselves lived in a time of rising chaos. Mark encourages his readers to pay attention, to be steady, focused and fearless, and to attend to Jesus’ teaching because when the time comes—like the emerging buds on the fig tree—it will be too late for pruning and tending. To follow Jesus—to be a disciple—is a journey of service, of humility and sacrifice for the sake of others. Mark provides hope for his readers; he assures them that their sacrifice will lead to redemption, just like Jesus’ did.

Our lives provide never-ending opportunities to be people of hope, and to perfect the message of which our life speaks, as if to say, “There, you see? This is what I’ve been working on all year!” Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. wrote, “At the end of the church year, therefore, as at the end of our life, our vision ought to be of new heavens and a new earth, of new bodies and souls as innocent and good as the Spirit of God who indwells.” [1] In the next few weeks we will be presented with an opportunity to recraft our vision for the coming year and begin again.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Biblical Meditations for Ordinary Time-Weeks 23-34, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ 1984. p 386