Changing the World
In this excellent homily for The Baptism of the Lord, Year C, Father Hanly talks about changing the world, because if you’re with Jesus in baptism, you have Jesus’ mission, and Jesus’ mission is to heal and save the world.
Readings for The Baptism of the Lord, Year C
- First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10
- Second Reading: Acts 10:34-38
- Gospel: Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
This very short passage that Luke gives us, shows us that God has anointed the Messiah, has anointed His Son, Jesus, to go out and heal and save the world.
Roughly, if you look at what actually happened on that day when Jesus was baptised…
You remember he’s a grown man now and John is baptising in the River Jordan, which is a sacred river because it was in the crossing of the River Jordan that the people came in to the land of promise, the land of milk and honey, and so an appropriate place for John’s baptism.
Now you remember John’s baptism is a baptism that is basically understood as coming back to God. When people kind of begin to wander away from, not God, because you can’t wander away God…
You know the old saying that no matter how high you jump, you can’t jump out of the hand of the Buddha. Well, the same is true of God. No matter how far you run, He’s going to be there, maybe before you get there, to welcome you to your new place and new hideout.
But what he is talking about, basically, is something quite different. He is talking about the nature of the personal relationship that God has always had with his people. And that’s quite different from a presence. It’s not just a presence, it’s a loving sharing presence.
And so what John is out there doing…
He knows the Messiah is coming, he knows it’s Jesus, and he is telling the people that now, after him…
He is not the Messiah, he is not the anointed one, because he baptises with water, which means come and confess your sins and turn back to God.
It’s a sign that we have all around us in many of the great religions of the world where you go down into the river and you wash yourself clean, a great symbol that you begin, come out of the water a new person, a new direction.
And so this is what John was offering. It was for sinners. It was for people who recognised not only their need for God, but their inability to be saints and perfect people. And so they would come, as all human beings are, a mixture of the divine and the human.
And when he saw Jesus coming, he stopped and he said, “I cannot baptise you.”
Because the Messiah is the Son of God and without sin.
And Jesus says something rather strange to him. He says, “Let it be at this time and then later you will understand.”
And so he baptised him.
But if you look at the picture, it’s Jesus walking away from the prominent position as the second person of the Blessed Trinity or what have you, and walking down into the water, shoulder to shoulder with all of the weeping people and those who were praying to the Father to forgive them all their sins.
And why was he doing that?
It wasn’t because he was a great sinner. Of course not.
He was doing it to let us know that he would always not be among the high and the mighty, not be among those who felt that they somehow had no need for God’s forgiveness, but he would take on the guilt and the fear and the pain and the sorrow of all the people who stood with him in the waters of baptism.
And that would change the meaning of baptism so that today we have water, we have the people, but we know that it is Christ who stands with us, the light of the world.
And when the little baby, the water is poured over that little child, what happens is that a covenant with the Father is made through Jesus. And, through Jesus, this child has a new life, because Jesus is one with humanity, one with us, one with our tears and one with our laughter. And so that makes a new beginning.
And what is the purpose now of all these people who have come back to God in this way? Or all these people who have been baptised, as we have been baptised, most of us, one with Jesus, one with his presence? What are we supposed to do, I suppose is the next question.
And the answer is quite difficult. If you’re with Jesus in the baptism, you have Jesus’ mission. And Jesus’ mission is to heal and save the world.
And he cannot do it without us, because what happens in this world is one with us and one with Jesus. And he’s not going to be making miracles. He’s going to be working through the presence of God in our hearts, the presence of God in our lives, and this is how he is going to heal and save the world.
So, today, we celebrate not only Jesus’ baptism, but we celebrate God’s gracious coming among us in this very human way. We celebrate the baptism of ourselves. The covenant of love is extended from Father to Son to all of the children of God.
And this is why today is a great celebration. It’s the beginning of something new. It’s the beginning of a new hope. It’s the beginning of a new faith. And, of course, it’s the beginning of a sharing of a new kind of love where we give ourselves to God and God gives Himself to us.
That would change the whole world you would think. How come two thousand years later it’s not quite what maybe even Jesus thought when he began it all at the River Jordan?
I’ll tell two stories. The first story is, you’ve probably heard this before, but it’s the day to tell them.
There was a meeting, an ecumenical meeting, gathering all kinds of people who believe in God, whether they are Catholic, Christian, Jewish, what have you, and there was a priest sitting next to a rabbi.
And the priest was from New York, so he was very glib, you know, and he was going to explain to this rabbi that Jesus was the Messiah.
And so he was saying, “Now, Rabbi, really we all come from Judaism, we are all spiritually Jews, but you must remember now that you’re waiting for the Messiah who came two thousand years ago. It’s like being at a railroad station when the train has been gone for two thousand years, because in Jesus he’s already come.”
Well, the rabbi is kind of clever, so he goes (it’s New York City they have the meeting) and he looks out into Times Square and the area of mid-Manhattan, he looks down and he ponders, and then he comes back and he says, “If the Messiah came, how come nothing’s changed?”
Think of that now. If the Messiah came, how come nothing’s changed?
What’s wrong with that?
Well, everything has changed.
When I was a little boy, if you were a negro, if you were black, if you were African American, you couldn’t come into the village we lived in after nine o’clock at night or you’d be put in jail.
That’s changed. Many things have changed. There’s been a deeper understanding. It just grows gradually.
And how does it grow?
It grows through the people. Because the change is anchored in the gift of God Himself to us. But we must release that into the world. It is our hands, our thoughts, our poetry, our words, but not separated from the words, the poetry, the love, the caring, the faith, of Jesus himself.
And this is the second story and then I’ll quit. The second story is…
My father had a best friend. All of you who know me well, know his name was Christopher Columbus Canon. I think if I ever got married and had a child, that’s what I would call him: Christopher Columbus Canon.
Not only was he an extraordinary man, he came from the kind of background that he never learned to read and write. His grandfather was a slave, Christopher Columbus Canon, and his father was a sharecropper, which is probably the lowest of the low farmer in southern North Carolina and the rest of the South.
Anyhow, Christopher Columbus Canon came up north and he was illiterate. He could barely write his name. But he was the wisest man I’ve ever met and I used to rush to hear his stories, because his stories were so plain and simple and really true. And I’m going to tell you one of his stories.
He was working in the parish as a cook for the priests, and he was my father’s best friend because they shared one great weakness. They both belonged to Alcoholics Anonymous. They were recovering alcoholics, you see.
And the priest, Father Burns, who was instructing Christopher Columbus Canon, you’d say to him, “Father Burns, where are you going?” And he’d say, “I’m going to receive my instructions from Christopher Columbus Canon.”
And I’ll tell you just one of his stories. Okay?
I came in from the seminary, I was on vacation, and it seemed to me that there was a great amount of noise going on in one of the rooms, where one of the groups, one of the Our Lady of Victory, I won’t say which name, but one of the groups were meeting and there was all kinds of fighting and yelling and screaming and all of that.
And I went in to Mr Canon and I sat down there and he made coffee for us if we ever walked in there.
And I said, “Mr Canon, how come every time I come back here, I hear all these groups, they’re fighting all the time, you know. We’re supposed to be Christians, we’re supposed to be loving and caring and this, but they’re always arguing this, that and the other. What’s wrong? It must be something that is wrong with God or the messages.”
Anyhow, he said, “Now Denis.” And he had this Southern drawl, you know. “Denis, I tell you, when I was a young man and I came up out of the south, we were so poor we didn’t have shoes till I was twenty-one years old.
“And,” he said, “I was determined I’m going to come up to New York City and I’m going to be something, I’m going to make it up here in New York City.
“And so I went up to Harlem and I got a little cold water flat and I got a job packing meat. And nobody even paid any attention to me, never looked at me, never asked me even who I was.
“So,” he said, “what I did was, I went to my boss.
“And my boss was a very nice man and he said, ‘Christopher Columbus Canon, what you need is an automobile, because up here in New York, especially in Harlem, you’ve got to get one of those automobiles with the long, thin line backs and then everybody will say, “Wow you really made it!” you see.’”
So he said, “Well, how am I going to afford it?”
So his boss, being very nice and second-hand cars being very cheap, lent him half the money.
And so Christopher Columbus Canon had his car. And he shined it every day and he worked on it every day.
And every morning he would sit in it and the people would go by and they’d say, “Christopher Columbus Canon, you really made it, man, so quick up here. Everybody is talking about you, you got this beautiful sleek car.”
“And I smiled. And at night, when I came out of work, I’d come home again, I’d jump in the car and sit there.
“And then everything was going fine, everything was just wonderful. The people would say, ‘Christopher Columbus Canon, you’re one smart guy to come up from the south, you know, and achieve so much in such a short time.’
“And then somebody said to me, ‘Well now, Christopher Columbus Canon, when are you going to take us for a ride?’
“Denis,” he says, “I had the car, but I didn’t know you also, to be a big man up here, you had to learn how to drive.” (Congregation laughs.)
He says, “That’s like us, you know. We’ve got God’s love, we’ve got gifts of hope, most of all we have God’s faith.
“But it’s no good to have it. You’ve got to know how to drive it. You’ve got to put it into your life. It’s got to come through your eyes and ears and into your heart, but it’s got to spin out in working to build up that (inaudible) that Jesus is waiting for.”
Very simple story, but very true.
It’s not enough to have faith. You have to live by your faith.
It’s not enough to have hope for yourself, you have to have hope for all the sad and sorry people, so that when they’re weeping, and when they’re on the edges of despair, they have someone to get hope from.
And a decent hope, and a good hope, because it is the hope that God Himself gives us.
And, most of all, it’s no good to have just the faith. And it’s no good to have just the hope.
You’ve got to learn how to love like Jesus loved. You’ve got to take that and put it into the world. You’ve got to activate it among all the people that you touch every day.
And then you will know the meaning of today’s feast.
For at today’s feast, you notice God appears in the last scene and He looks down at His Son, and they hear the voice, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
And the man, Luke, who wrote that, he wasn’t talking about Jesus, he was saying to all of you, you have it here with faith, hope and love: “You are my beloved children and in whom I am well pleased.”
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Father Hanly's sermon for The Baptism of the Lord, Year C, "Changing the World" was delivered on 10th January 2010. It is sometimes hard to accurately transcribe Father Hanly's reflections, so please let us know if you think we have made a mistake in any of our transcripts, and let us have your suggestions.
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