Friday, May 29, 2009

1-13-2008: Baptism of the Lord (A)

Isaiah 42:1-4,6-7/Psalm 29/Acts of the Apostles 10:34-38/Matthew 3:13-17
John the Baptist might have jumped too fast to a conclusion the day that Jesus got on the baptism line at the Jordan. John might have thought that having Jesus as his disciple would bring a momentum to his movement that would be hard to stop. But religion, like politics, is filled with surprises (just ask Senators Obama and Clinton as they analyze last week’s results from Iowa and New Hampshire). As Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism, the divine voice undoes John’s hard fought campaign for a return to a strict observance of the Law by telling the crowd to listen to Jesus instead – a surprise, no doubt, for John as well as for his disciples. The Baptism of Jesus which we celebrate today marks the beginning of what’s called Jesus’ Public Ministry, a term which makes for a convenient segue to a discussion of presidential politics.

It’s no doubt the confluence of a number of factors which has engendered the exciting political climate overtaking the nation and has made for some interesting political chat. After the recent results in Iowa and New Hampshire I heard one pundit make the claim that a candidate’s race, religion or gender shouldn’t make a difference – it’s his, or her, ideas that should matter most. It’s that old American myth: that issues and ideas should transcend race, religion and gender – as if those ideas shouldn’t be shaped by their physical expression. But the truth is that ideas can never be expressed without such prejudice. And, in fact, ideas are given semblance and beauty and power precisely because they are formed by the realities of our physical existence. In the end you can’t separate Obama from the fact that he is a man of color, or Huckabee from his Baptist roots, or Hilary from her sex – and, I believe, you shouldn’t seek to do so, whether it be in the name of democracy or egalitarianism or political correctness.

Today’s gospel highlights the import of identity. The divine voice marks Jesus’ nature and person as distinct from that of the Baptist, as carrying more weight. It will be Jesus’ identity which gives power to his moral teaching (after all, there’s very little new in what Jesus taught). It’s the sacramental principle of reality at work: the visible expression of an invisible reality, when authentic, contains to some degree the reality itself. Jesus could abandon John’s strict interpretation of the Law because his nature and person gave him an authority to do so – and others perceived this to be so. John was the defender of the Law in its extreme while Jesus (despite arguments to the contrary) would offer a certain freedom from it. John lost his head over the Law, protesting Herod’s illicit marriage; Jesus, seemingly, couldn’t have cared less.

It’s the political candidate who feels most at ease with himself -- or herself – who projects a convincing confidence with the flow of ideas and positions even when, for political survival, he or she might change positions on given issues. In the long run, the alliance of one’s person with one’s ideas (the given-ness of one’s nature in accord with the experience garnered by nurture) is what makes for authenticity. And authenticity, more than anything else, is the most attractive thing – in politics and religion.

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