Thursday, January 12, 2006

Joining the Human Race

How's that for a subtitle to The Baptism of the Lord?
It struck me during an experience I had that could be seen as analogous to Jesus' own baptism--one you had not intended. That is, John, out baptizing that day, had no idea his cousin Jesus, whose ministry he knew would be greater than his own, would show up with sinners waiting to be baptized. That wasn't what he would have planned in the way of inaugurating this younger cousin into doing the Lord's work. I mean, come on! How about a semicha--an ordination or something? But this showing up unannounced! It was jarring...

Since I love the feast of The Baptism of the Lord, I always hope it will fall on the Sunday after Epiphany, where it belongs, so we can celebrate it with music and liturgy. But this year, due to the squinching up of feasts with Christmas and New Year's falling on Sundays, the Baptism got relegated to the Monday following Epiphany.

I resolved that I would attend 7:00 mass down at the little daily mass chapel at the Carmel Mission--and then perhaps go for a coffee at Cardenali's Coffee Roasting to celebrate further. Monday mornings are not a good time to inaugurate unusual feats of virtue, however, and I overslept the 6am wake-up time. Well, I could still go to the noon mass, I thought, and continue on from there to my job at SandCastles Toys afterwards.

When I reached the heavy wood door to the chapel, though, I was faced with a paper sign tacked on by the staff: "Dear Parishioners, due to the shortage of priests, we will not be able to offer mass today at this time. We will still offer mass at the usual 5:30 time." Disappointed, I turned to go, wondering how I would spend an entire hour before going to work. Half way to the car, I stopped and turned back. I could at least pray for a few minutes.

Entering into the twilit space, I heard the drone of a rosary being prayed by a small devoted collection of would-be mass-goers. Frankly, I'd hoped for quiet in which to meditate rather than the rote prayers of the rosary, but as a Catholic schooled in the prayers of my faith, I couldn't hear the prayers without my voice automatically joining theirs. I found the rhythm of the prayer sweeping over me as I responded, "Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen." At the beginning of the next decade, the leader's Irish-tinged voice began, "Our Father, who art in heaven...anyone?" Someone else took over leading the prayers. (Catholics have long used a call-response pattern in prayer: the leader prays the first half of the prayer, the rest chime in on the second half.)

I could at least meditate on the Baptism, I thought. So, what WAS Jesus doing there being baptized? (I've only known about this for almost 60 years, so why hadn't I wondered this before?) John was preaching a baptism of repentance, and what did Jesus have to repent--at least, according to our theology? Yet, there he was, presenting himself with the sinners, acknowledging publicly his sins.
Jews do this even today at Yom Kippur, where, as members of one People, they recognize that, when one has sinned, all have sinned. Each takes on the guilt of the whole. John was offering a similar experience for those of his time, but deritualizing it to make it hit home more. It's easy to acknowledge sinfulness if you can rationalize that it wasn't really you that was guilty but just guilt by association. But when you have to go forward alone, it somehow emphasizes the reality of your own responsibility. Jesus chose to acknowledge publicly his belonging to a sinful people, his taking part in sinfulness, even though he would ultimately heal the wounds of sin. In other words, this feast is a celebration of Jesus' full participation in the human race.

These thoughts grew in me as I counted out the Hail Marys on my fingers. (Why do we have 10 of them otherwise?) There went the leader once more, "Our Father...anyone?" I took the ball and ran with it. "Our Father," I began, a sense of empowerment flowing into me as I prayed in my public voice.

Interestingly, this was the first act of leadership I've performed in the church since I ceased to be the Director of Religious Education at the Postgraduate School. Over 20 years of leadership in the Church, and now I only join my voice to the Mission choir alto section and participate with the faithful in the acclamations of the mass. Such a little thing, but leading two decades of the rosary was, in its way, a come-back.

Those moments in the filtered light of the chapel said a lot about where the church is today--and has always been. It's a church of people--the people Jesus decided to join, the people now joined in Him. Sure, we all love a glorious liturgy, we all treasure the Eucharist. But the Church is the people at work and at prayer. It doesn't take clergy to do that.
At Jesus' baptism the clouds opened and the voice of the Father was heard to say, "This is my beloved Son; hear him." Still today the clouds open, and we do hear.

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