Thursday, January 9, 2014

You don't have to be special

Baptism of the Lord – Year A

Often when I see long lines at the buffet counter of parish events, I’m tempted to just step up to the front of the line and cut into the inconveniently long queue. It’s based on the assumption that ‘I’m Special! I’m the Parish Priest!’ It makes it easier when most of the parishioners will acquiesce to this with hardly any resistance. I guess that there would be those who would silently mutter under their breath, ‘What makes him think he is so special?” If only, someone did say something, then that oversized bubble of illusory superiority would be deflated. Unfortunately, no one has stepped up to the challenge.

Perhaps, many people suffer from this cognitive bias where they overestimate their own importance in relation to others. They think they are ‘special.’ What does this imply? To be special means to be better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual. It’s being exceptional, that is you’re exempted from the normal requirements that apply to the hoi poloi. I guess this explains the frequent phenomena of drivers beating the traffic light and exceeding speed limits. Those traffic laws simply don’t apply to them! Why? Because they are special! Or some can choose to bypass the red tape of dealing with the front desk staff and march straight into the manager’s office. Or the many who feel entitled to preferential treatment, oblivious to the inconvenience caused to others. It comes with the expectation that everyone else must bend backwards to accommodate their needs, simply because ‘They are Special!’ That explains why we love to hear our parents, our teachers, our motivational gurus remind us with that soothing mantra, ‘You are Special!’

But today we meet two persons in the gospel who stands out from the crowd and who seem immune to this culture of self- aggrandisement – John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. In fact, if there were any person who truly deserved the accolade of being called ‘special’ would be these two, and yet they brushed off any delusion of grandeur.  First we have the Baptist.  John is preparing the Messiah’s way, preaching a message of conversion and offering a baptism “for repentance.” Rather than to find a parallel with our present day sacrament of baptism, the baptism of St John the Baptist was more akin to a confession of sins. The Baptist had already deflected all attention given to his own ministry by pointing to one who is superior in rank and power. And then, the unexpected happens.

The Lamb of God – the paragon of purity; the one who is, in fact, God Incarnate – the Sinless One presents himself before the Herald and request for the baptism “for repentance” just like every regular sinner. This seems absurd, even sacrilegious. John the Baptist suggests as much: “It is I who need baptism from you … and yet you come to me.” The request of Jesus seems altogether incomprehensible and shocking. For instance: imagine Christ himself, standing in front of you in a line outside the Confessional before the start of the Mass. The analogy is imperfect, of course; but it conveys something of the shock that John the Baptist must have felt when Christ approached him by the river.

Thus, at the heart of today’s gospel is the example of how the Son of God, who did not reserve to himself the privilege of being exempted from the baptism of repentance, though he was truly sinless, but instead sought solidarity with every sinner: the Lord puts himself in the place of sinners, identifying with us in a supreme gesture of compassion. The Son of God comes to the river not only “as a man,” but precisely as if he were a wretched and sinful man. Such an act cannot “make sense” in the ordinary, common-sense way. Our Maker – in his absolute perfection – not only joins the human race, but identifies with us at our worst. Jesus, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “blends into the gray mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan.” Christ has come to the river “to place himself among sinners … to make himself a penitent with us.”

How could Jesus descend into the waters, in the first place? Why did he join the ranks of sinners, receiving a baptism “for repentance”? Surely this was not the only way in which God could have revealed his triune inner life. In the words of that great twentieth century mystic, Thomas Merton, “Christ came on earth, not to wear the awful cold beauty of a holy statue, but to be numbered among the wicked, to die as one of them … If Christ is not really my brother with all my sorrows, with all my burdens on His shoulder and all my poverty and sadness in His heart, then there has been no redemption.” Jesus, though perfectly pure, did not boast or revel in his own purity. He did not set himself up as someone special, in the sense of being better, greater, far surpassing others. In fact, it is because of his deliberate decision to stand with us, that we can be regarded as blessed!

We are finally drawn to the climax of the narrative – it’s all about the work of God. It’s never about being born this way or having earned this honour! As the heavens part to reveal the Spirit in the form of a dove, we hear a voice from above which expresses the Father's pleasure, recognising His Son, the Only Begotten, the Beloved. And that is simply the truth that exposes the fraud of what the world sells us. We are not special, we don’t need to be special. We are no different from anyone else. But that’s not all, we are loved by God, and that makes all the difference. At a very deep and basic level, that means that you and I have an important place in the very heart of God. And because of that, nobody can tell you that your life doesn’t matter. Nobody can tell you that you are unloved. Nobody can tell you that you don’t belong. Because in the eyes of God, your life does matter, you are loved, and you do belong! You don’t have to be ‘special’ to earn this!

A good friend of mine, Deacon Sherman Kuek, recently wrote a letter to his three year old son. I know what you are thinking, “Can a three year old understand the language used in this letter?” Well, I guess it was more of the learned deacon’s venting of his frustration with the whole social and educational machinery which is bent on trying to reinforce the illusory superiority of every individual. He writes, “As a father, I resent it when they lie to you about how you are so unique and special, and then go on to tell all other children the same thing about themselves. If this world was truly made up of such unique and special people, then we should logically be a society consisting of all highly successful, highly able, and highly rich people, and we would all be gods. I want you to know the truth that God made us ordinary. In fact, He even made Himself ordinary so that we could find Him among us. Let us not exalt ourselves beyond what we truly are.” But that doesn’t stop God from loving you, right?

The great Bishop Fulton Sheen reminds us that "Christmas is not a man making himself a god, but God becoming a man , without ever ceasing to be God. In the first instance, there is exaltation or self-inflation by which man makes himself what he is not. In the second instance, there is humiliation, for God takes on the form and habit of man." The devil hates this truth, and tries to hide it from us. That is one of many reasons the Church celebrates it, joyously, every year. Again and again, throughout our lives, we gather by the river – a “gray mass of sinners,” all-too-aware of our faults. And every time, we find the Messiah, our sinless Redeemer, standing in our midst as one of us, feet firmly planted in the murky and muddy waters of life’s ordinary existence, we hear once more those defining words of the Father, “This is, my Son, This is my Daughter, the Beloved, on whom my favour rests.”

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