At this early point, John the Baptist begins to fade into the background of the Gospel story. He performed his duty to perfection; he decreased while Jesus increased; he ended up in Herod’s prison for telling the truth about Herod’s marriage; and not long after, John was martyred for not succumbing to human authority and their ways of wrath, but won the victory for himself where light overcame the darkness he knew. John’s mission was made complete in the love and goodness of the God he served so faithfully. John the Baptist was a true soldier who died a soldier’s death for Christ. In the beginning, John leapt in the womb. At the end, John leapt from Herod’s dungeon to heaven.
Now, the one who increases is at center stage. Forever. He will remain there, performing this opera called The Gospel for the next three years in public, drawing sellout crowds through his words and miraculous healings.
At the center of this opera – still running by the way, a 2000-year stint – is the word “Repent.” Repent is not a word to be feared or run away from. We can and will make all sorts of comments as to why “Repent” can be an ugly four-letter word. But it’s a word and reality that brings internal peace, a new beginning, a centering of one’s path in life, a direction that follows John the Baptist to heaven and life eternal.
As the Lord increases and John decreases, as Christ enters center stage, staying there until he returns in glory, we carry on a twofold personal responsibility before the Increaser; first, to continually seek his repentance when needed so that his light may overcome our darkness. And second, that Christ remain at the center of our daily living. Especially when darkness is creeping up on us, or performs a nosedive into the light of our souls. Be it disease or illness, addiction, or one of the thousand ways the human body will suffer.
First, ‘Repent.” Or in the words of Jesus, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That’s Jesus’ way of saying, “You are now looking at God in Person.” Repentance on its own is a frightful word. What the Lord does so mercifully is that he offers us the best reasons why we seek repentance. That repentance has positive reasons why it should be a continuous mindset for us.
I love it when people reveal how they say an Act of Contrition each night before they fall asleep. Is it a perfect Act of Contrition? It may be; it may not be. Only God knows that answer. But the person who prays an Act of Contrition each night, not knowing if they will still be in this world when the sun rises, that person’s heart is in a very good place with our Redeemer. Perfect or imperfect, the intention and humility are present.
But we don’t miss the reason why we seek repentance; “For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In other words, the light of Christ has – and continues to – overcome the darkness. His light is at hand. We don’t live like his light is not at hand. You have the light of Christ in your little Christian kingdom. And when that light begins to fade because of our choices, then “Repent.” Repentance returns light into our souls. And it doesn’t cost anything. It re-centers us for God’s work. And, it overcomes the darkness of the evil one who seeks to destroy us.
The second part of our twofold responsibility before the Increaser is the gate that John the Baptist leapt through after Herod ordered him to be dispatched. That he, the Increaser, remains at the center of our lives. That’s a solid gate for entering heaven one day.
We all have faith in Christ. If not, we wouldn’t be here. Even if there are present struggles, we still have faith in him. For some of us, our faith in him grows deeper because of our struggles. Still, we may be a little angry, a little mad, uncertain, or even feel ourselves losing the good grip of faith. But you’re not going to lose it. Are you going to become an atheist by dinner time? Allow yourself a most beautiful truth; that we have been blessed with the gift of faith.
Our faith in Christ will be tested in a thousand different ways along the way. Even the Apostles were unsure at times, but they stayed with the Increaser. Except for one of them; the purse-stealer who went his own way.
But we come to understand how the journey of faith increases over time, beginning with the call of Peter & Andrew, James & John. They leave their boats immediately, because they trust the power of the word who called them. The same One who has called us. Over time, there will be mishaps, some dumb statements by Peter and others, some running away, some questioning his authority, some telling him he will not carry a cross. They get in the way of God’s will for us.
But they last. They keep him at the center through their own repentance. And in the end, they have the faith of a Saint, which they become. And I suspect that more than a few of you good people have the faith of a Saint after many mishaps.
John the Baptist is removed from the scene, replaced by the Increaser. John lived his calling to perfection. But now Jesus is on stage. In our personal lives, our communities, our nation, and our world. Through your faith, allow his light to overcome the darkness through you. You are the land of Zebulon, the land of Naphtali, the way to the sea. You are the way to the Light that has arisen.
We constantly throughout our lives need the reminder that we do not live in the darkness. That we live in the light of Christ. With the threat of war constant in the Middle East, the land of The Prince of Peace, being an incredible irony; with the constant barrage of out of control politics streaming from the nation’s capital – whatever side you happen to be on; with 24-hour Cable News shoving their many crude, hate-filled, slanted opinions down your throat, trying to invade your Christian heart, whatever side you happen to be on; and, the continuous natural disasters that absorb the earth since the time of The Flood in Genesis, when Noah was the only righteous person…
We are in constant need of allowing ourselves to be reminded that we are not to live in the darkness, but that we live in the light of Christ. And whatever Tom Brady decides, we’ll get over it.
The Baptism of the Lord is a day in the history of our world where light has destroyed, again, the darkness brought on by the disobedience in the Garden of Paradise. And to think the light of this day almost didn’t happen because John the Baptist first said no.
Jesus knew what he wanted. Just like parents bringing their infant children to the Church to be baptized. They know what they want. Whether parents fully understand the theology of Baptism or not, they know this much; they want their child to live, not in the darkness of the world they grow up in , but in the light of Christ that has the power and grace to overcome the darkness their children will certainly encounter. Parents know how much they love their children, and to what degree they will protect them from the zaniness and darkness of Cable News and the like.
Jesus got it. He got the picture. He knew he wanted John to baptize him to fulfill all righteousness. The righteousness of the light of heaven conquering the darkness of H-E- Double Hockey Sticks. Hades. Way Down Below. Whatever you want to call it. There are many names for the bad stuff. But there’s one word for the today’s light: Baptism.
John the Baptist, the guy who refused no one who came to him at the River Jordan, the guy who turned away no one who approached him in good conscience, was ready to refuse Jesus the Baptism he sought. But Jesus overpowered – very gently – the uncertainty of John. It’s likely the only time in his life John the Baptist was confused. He must have been watching too much Cable News that day, whatever side he was on. We know for certain that John was on the side of doing God’s will.
As with all things with Christ, the Baptism of the Lord benefits not himself, but all of us with faith. And potentially those too without faith, to come to faith in the Son of God. Faith that the light overcomes the darkness we experience, all the way to the darkness of death. And the benefit from Jesus’ baptism is nothing less than our joy being made complete in the everlasting Paradise, not the one Adam & Eve foiled. God’s Paradise is Paradise. With all the banquets and feasts. With all that is good and beautiful. Where no Cable News is allowed.
Christ is a light for the nations for those who live in darkness. He is a light for the individual, for the community of believers, conquering the darkness we encounter, notably the darkness of sin and death. Our Lord’s Baptism happens not to defeat evil worldly forces alone. As much as we want for the goodness of God to intervene loudly and wipe it all away, our Lord’s Baptism overpowers the spiritual forces that drag us down.
Jesus fulfilling all righteousness from his Baptism is an invitation to take him by the hand and allow ourselves to be led to the better side of our humanity. Or as Lincoln said in his first Inaugural, to “the better angels of our nature.”
Parents bring their children to be baptized so their beautiful children may live and know the better angels of their nature. We love that light. We love such innocence. That they live in the fulfillment of the Lord’s righteousness. We’ve been baptized into this heavenly nature. May our lives reflect that great truth of how the Spirit once touched us in a way that has left an indelible mark on our souls.
And to think that John the Baptist tried to prevent the Lord’s Baptism because of his awareness of being unworthy to perform the act Jesus wanted. But the Lord carried John to the place where he wanted him, right there in the River. And he will also carry us to where we belong, in his light that overcomes the darkness.
John the Baptist knew an awful lot about Jesus for having met him just once. Well, actually twice. The first meeting was Mary visiting Elizabeth when pregnant, and John somehow knowing at this pre-born age that the Lamb of God was in his presence in the belly of Mary his mother. The first meeting between John and Jesus caused John to leap for joy, do a high-five, spike the football, and hit a grand slam all in one play.
How could John know of Jesus’ presence so early, while he hid in the safety net of his own mother’s womb? Only through the power and great mystery of the Holy Spirit that filled both children and mothers could a pre-born child acknowledge the presence of the Messiah before him. That’s a world of holiness we don’t quite understand, but a joy that awaits us.
The second meeting came about 30 years after the leaping incident. By this time, the souls of John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, went off to the holding cell; the place where the souls of the just waited for the resurrection of Jesus to officially open the doors of heaven forever and ever. And St. Joseph too, we believe had entered eternal life. Much will change in 30 years’ time.
The second meeting was celebrated last week when John, again, recognized the Holy One of God walking toward him at the Jordan River. The proof of John’s recognition of Jesus was John’s initial refusal to baptize Jesus. It was a most humble act by John, accompanied by the words, “You’re the one who should be baptizing me, the Baptizer.” We all know how that went down. Jesus went down in the water, baptized by John to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus won again, as usual. Even when he dies, he wins. And in that truth lies our hope.
But here we are at the third meeting of John and Jesus not long after the Lord’s Baptism. And John gives us words, again, that place the entirety of our relationship with Christ into perspective; “A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.”
John was not fooled by anyone he met. And he didn’t subscribe to anyone’s political party because they don’t want someone who is filled with the Holy Spirit and truth. Yet, here’s John folding up like a lawn chair, and melting like a grilled cheese on a hot stove, in the presence of his own relative, Jesus of Nazareth. When’s the last time we spoke about a relative the way John spoke about Jesus? That they ranked ahead of us, because they existed before us? Have you ever said such words about an elder sibling or cousin? I have plenty of them, and I never said that! And I never will!
But John the Baptist did. He folded up like a glove; “I must decrease, he must increase.” John melted all his holiness, in fact, his entire life, right into the hand of Jesus. After just three meetings, one of them in the womb, he knew all this information about Christ.
“The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” Not only sins, personal sins, which he does blot out. But, “the sin of the world.” The singular sin, of disobedience in the Garden. Conquered by the Divine and human perfection of obedience in Jesus of Nazareth.
How did John know such things, such truths about Jesus from two meetings in person, and one meeting in the womb 30 years before? Such knowledge is possible only in the mystery of God’s wonder and the Spirit’s power to infuse into John such wisdom in such limited time. It takes spouses years to know the deepest part of each other. The same with relatives and friends. But John knew things about Jesus that only Jesus’ mother knew. And she raised him and lived with him for 30 years. It’s no wonder Jesus says, “There is no one born of woman greater than John the Baptist.”
John introduces us to our Savior in ways that no one else does in the Scriptures. John didn’t know half of what Mary knew about her Son. Gabriel came to her. Gabriel, who stands before God, didn’t come to John. Gabriel did come to John’s father Zechariah, and then shut him up for 9 months for wrongly questioning heaven’s personal message.
But only John gives to the world a unique perspective on the Person of Jesus: “The Lamb of God;” “He ranks ahead of me;” “He existed before me.” Not in the womb, but from all eternity he existed. That’s what John knows about Jesus.
Our faith lives, our Catholic faith lives, rightly have holy devotion to the Mother of God. If she is not an integral part of our personal relationship with Jesus, then we are placing aside the aorta valve that leads to the heart of Christ her Son. She’s the number one artery that pumps our blood into the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
With that said, John the Baptist has an artery that also leads to the heart of Jesus. It’s not the aorta, the most important artery. But it’s an artery nonetheless. One that our Catholic lives of faith and prayer do well to include. It’s the Lamb of God artery; the Ranking Ahead of Me artery; the One Who Existed Before Me artery.
Incorporating these images of Jesus into our spiritual lives of faith and prayer will only deepen our knowledge and understanding of Christ our Lord. And the Source of such knowledge is the Spirit touching the holiness of John in mysterious ways, speaking truths about Jesus that draw us into a deeper communion with our Savior.
They traveled a great distance to help seal the deal. The “deal” began in the mind of God, if you will, reaching its fulfillment in the birth of Jesus. The “deal” was necessary after the calamity in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and his wife Eve messed up the previous deal called Paradise. A New Deal was needed after the garden fracas, and it didn’t come from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This new deal came down from above in the birth of a child in Bethlehem from the Virgin’s womb.
After this event was completed in a manger full of animals as the first worshippers, eventually being joined by some area shepherds told by an angel to go worship the child and tell what they saw, the next part of the story came from faraway visitors. The unexpected visitors.
The shepherds were local Jewish shepherds. They watched their sheep all year, their one break from their labor being a short walk from their Bethlehem flocks to the Passover feast in Jerusalem. The shepherds were of Israelite stock. Of the Chosen People. And they were nearby to all these happenings.
But the three who we cue in on today travel a great distance. They huff and puff it across the desert to seal the deal for the rest of humanity. Their trip across the highs and lows of barren land, sandstorms, as well as the heat of day and cool of night, finds at the end, not a refusal, but a welcome. Jesus came for the house of Israel, as he clearly says in the Gospel. “I have come for lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But there were a handful of non-Israelites along the way who caused the Lord to marvel at their faith in him. And the first Gentiles to show such faith, the first non-Israelites to marvel at this birthday present come down from heaven, were the Magi.
The Three Wise Guys, filled with untold amounts of wisdom, sealed the deal for the rest of us non-Israelites. Their efforts and determination to make it to their goal in Bethlehem, despite the deception of Herod – that was Herod being Herod – to prostrate themselves before this child, and their subsequent welcome by the child’s parents, these were efforts that went way beyond normal expectations under the circumstances.
By sealing the deal of completing the mission they set out to perform, knowing ahead there would be obstacles they couldn’t predict, similar to our present journey, we rejoice in their successful mission. We rejoice in their Apollo 11. They were the first Gentiles to land on the moon of salvation. And we all benefit from their heroic flight.
The Feast of the Epiphany is a humble reminder each year that at one time we were outside the gates that lead to life beyond the grave. There was a large sign on the gate that said, “Gentiles need not apply.”
As Jesus himself knocked down some walls in his public ministry, such as curing on the Sabbath, talking to a Samaritan woman at a famous well, appearing on Easter Sunday first to Mary Magdalene and not his own Apostles, which would come later. As the Lord formed and shaped the world to God’s liking by way of mercy, moving the bad elements out of the way to make room for all that is good, so too have the Magi barreled through the storms of the desert and through the halls of Herod to seal the deal that has made us coheirs with Jesus, members of the same body, copartners in the promise of Christ through the gospel.
We now own the Gospel. The Good News. As Catholics who were once Gentiles; us Catholics who were once on the outside of this great story looking in; us Catholics who used to worship pagan idols of bronze, silver, and gold; us Catholics who used to worship our own bodies in sinful ways that this present culture sadly returns to, we are now inside the gates.
Please don’t take it for granted that we have entered through the gate of salvation. Rather, bring our Christian faith to every phase of our lives. Allow it to address every part of your life. Because those Three Wise Men went through heck and high water – or high sand dunes – to seal the deal that makes us coheirs with the Savior of the World. Their sealing of the deal, this trip across the plains, has ensured we will share life eternal with our loved ones. Their trip results in nothing less.
For the birth of our Lord in 2019, may we offer to him our own gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold is love, frankincense is peace, myrrh is mercy. In the spirit of the Magi coming to worship the newborn King, we bring these virtues to others, because we are now inside the gates of Jesus Christ.