I was in West Virginia this past Wednesday on my day off, clearing brush in the woods and having a bonfire in preparation for cutting some trees down. I had no contact with the outside world except for an occasional jet that would fly over. It was not until Thursday morning while driving back to Frederick that I began to understand what had happened in Washington DC the day before. My fellow Americans had stormed the Capitol building, battered down doors, broken windows, ransacked offices, interrupted the important work of Congress… and people were dead. I couldn’t believe it and was confused and saddened while driving home.
We have all had days when life catches us off-guard and takes us completely by surprise– when life has given you what you could neither plan for, nor foresee. We can all remember times when our plans were disrupted by something unexpected. We have all had occasions when it felt like more was being asked of you than you had to give– you didn’t feel up to it, or didn’t feel like you were enough. Remember when life left you feeling confused and lost? It just didn’t make sense. Or have you ever had a situation you wanted to say “no” to, something you didn’t want to do, or have to deal with?
We all have those kinds of experiences. And I think that’s exactly where John the Baptist finds himself is in today’s gospel. Jesus has come “from Nazareth of Galilee” to be baptized by him. It’s something John never expected or foresaw– he didn’t plan on this. “I need to be baptized by you,” he says to Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. Baptizing Jesus does not fit John’s expectations of who Jesus is, and what he will do. The order and structure of John’s world are being turned upside-down. According to the gospel text, Jesus is the “mightier” one, and John is “not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.” Everything about this moment is contrary to what John believes, wants, and expects. And we’ve all be there. We know what that’s like. When has that happened to you? And what do you do when it happens?
What do you do when your prayer is not answered, the budget doesn’t work out, or expectations are not met? What do you do when your plan doesn’t come together, a relationship ends, or life is interrupted? How do you react when a pandemic seems to “steal” a year and a half of your life? What do you do when it’s a hard day and you just want to say “no” and run away?
It seems to me the dynamics of this gospel story set before us two choices. We can either resist, forbid, and try to prevent what is coming to us, which is what John wants to do. Or we can permit it and “let it be,” which is what Jesus persuades John to do. John consents to baptize Jesus, and in doing so he sets an example for us. Most of us here have been baptized—and in a few moments we will have the opportunity to renew our baptismal promises. In those promises we consent to responding positively to the call of Jesus in our lives.
The consent to which Jesus calls us isn’t simply about giving up, acquiescing, approving, or agreeing. It’s about a way of life– it’s about Jesus’ way of life. It doesn’t mean we have to like or want what is happening. It does, however, mean that we face it and deal with it. Consent means we show up to our life and be present to whatever is before us, and whatever is coming to us– even if it is difficult, painful, or the last thing we wanted. Consent isn’t about being in control or having all the answers. It means we don’t turn back or run away from what is in front of us. We don’t have to do everything that is set before us, but neither can we resist doing what is ours to do.
Consent doesn’t mean passively accepting whatever happens. It means actively giving ourselves to the circumstances, relationships, and people before us. It’s an act of risk and vulnerability. And it’s a profession of faith, hope, and love. It means staying open and remaining receptive to whatever in that moment is being asked of us in the name of God. Think of all that has been thrown at us during this past year, including the world-wide pandemic, the issue of race relations, the divisiveness of politics, and the turmoil in our government. I must admit—I sometimes want to run away and hide. But Jesus is always beckoning us to face squarely and grapple with life from the perspective of our baptismal calling.
From the day of his baptism, that’s how Jesus lived his life. His life was a continual “yes” to the world, to you, and to me. He lived a life of consent:
- he consented to bring good news to the poor;
- he consented to welcome the outsider and foreigner;
- he consented to hospitality for the hungry and thirsty;
- he consented to forgiveness for the women caught in adultery;
- he consented to intimacy when Mary anointed and kissed his feet;
- he consented to compassion and healing for the blind, deaf, and lame;
- he consented to abundance when the wine ran out;
- he consented to be a servant of all and wash dirty feet;
- he consented to peace and nonviolence in a world of swords;
- he consented to speak truth to power, especially when power is misused;
- he consented to struggle with God’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane;
- he consented to courage and perseverance as he took up and carried his cross;
- he consented to reconcile with Peter after being denied by him three times;
- he consented to humility when soldiers mocked and beat him;
- he consented to life in the face of death.
Jesus never turned away, backed down, or withheld his consent. He was present and showed up to whoever or whatever was before him. Every time Jesus consented, he stepped into the river of humanity and immersed himself in the waters of your life and my life. Consent is an act of solidarity, a standing with another. Jesus asked John to stand with him. Jesus stands with us… and he asks us to stand with him in the river of humanity.
So, what if we saw one another and ourselves through the lens of our baptism? What if we let our baptismal consent guide our actions, determine our words, and establish our priorities? What would that mean for us? How would we do life differently? Would we see more clearly that black lives are still sometimes victims of racism, and it seems as if their lives do not matter? Would we notice that, for some people, police lives don’t matter either, as seen at the Capitol on Wednesday? Can we see that the lives of unborn children sometimes do not matter? Would we admit that women around the world still face discrimination, and too many live in a culture of violence? Can we sense that gay and lesbian people often do not feel accepted, or safe? Or that anti-Semitism continues to be perpetuated, or hear the rising voices of white supremacy? Do we see that the economy is failing working-class people of all colors and races, because income inequality continues to grow? Can we see that, as a nation, we have become more unwelcoming to the foreigner and have turned away the refugee? Can we feel the pain and needs of the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and those in need of medical care? In other words, can we see as Jesus sees?
In our baptism we were united with Jesus, who consents to unite with us, especially through the Eucharist we will share at this Mass. Every time we renew that baptismal consent, we wade into the deep waters of life. We stand with Jesus in the river of humanity and reach out in solidarity to our sisters and brothers around us. We address the injustices we see in our society, even if we are not personally responsible for them, simply because that is what Jesus did. Sacramentally united with Jesus, our baptism does not allow us to do anything less…