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2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (15.01.17)
“I didn’t know you had it in you.”
An experienced senior officer once addressed these words to a mild-mannered, semi-introverted junior. The recipient had achieved ‘top recruit’ status in a gruelling SAS (Special Air Services) entry course. Few who knew the twenty something expected him to succeed where the dropout rate hovers around 80%. Every entry course relentlessly tests an applicant’s core because the life of each SAS soldier depends on his own and his comrade’s core strengths. In a different context parents, too, can be surprised at what emerges as one or other of their offspring reveals talents or abilities, combined with strengths of character, which had previously not been visible.
By contrast, we never surprise God, our Father. He knows us through and through, loves us to perfection, and is always respectful of the freewill with which he has endowed us. God makes use of invitation and encouragement but waits at the boundary of our personal choice. Forcing the premature enactment of a person’s latent talent, particularly if using external pressure, can be disastrous for the individual at the time as well as for their future. There is also the matter of breaching a person’s free will.
Whom did John (the Baptiser) see in the crowd, gathered at the River Jordan, his cousin Jesus of Nazareth or The Messiah? Matthew chapter 3 tells us:
‘In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” It was of John that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
“A voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”
At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins….
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire….
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”
Jesus said to John in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John allowed him.
After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
John would have known Jesus over the years of their childhood and adolescence. Jewish families were large and well integrated, the more so because they survived under a harsh regime of Roman subjugation. There are also unconfirmed stories that Jesus and John may have spent some time, in their formative years, at the ancient monastic settlement of Qumran where the Judean wilderness abuts the Dead Sea.
If true, such stories confirm a truth we do recognise namely, that being in another person’s company does not necessarily reveal all that there is to be known about that person. The Spirit of God descending like a dove on the waterlogged head of Jesus, as he surfaced from his total-immersion baptism, would have been a revelation to John as well as a moment of confirmation for Jesus. It’s possible that God’s words, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” were only audible to Jesus and John in their inner selves – as once, previously, they had ‘inter-acted’ from within the wombs of their respective mothers. (Luke 1:41)
In the Gospel for this 2nd Sunday of the Year, St. John recalls John the Baptiser’s words when he encountered Jesus subsequent to his baptism. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me. I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” (1.29) John, the Evangelist, quotes John, the Baptiser: “I did not know him” (Jesus) yet clearly the two were known to each other but John had not fully known Jesus.
Among many human foibles is our ability to ‘pigeon-hole’ others. We categorise people in an over-restrictive way for a variety of reasons. We may even resist subsequent evidence that should prompt a change or update in our previous categorisation, presuming it would have been proper for us to have made the initial categorisation (Luke 6:37). Is this Sunday’s Gospel inviting us to review, in this year when Pope Francis is calling for all people to show mercy, any inflexibility we may show towards some people? Ancient unforgiven hurts remain unhealed until we forgive. It may also be necessary for us to seek pardon for the harm that our lengthy unwillingness to forgive may have caused others. Then there is the additional question as to whether we have infected others with our prejudices?
Nobody is beyond redemption while there is breath in their body. In Wisdom 11:21 ff. we read:
“For it is always in your power (Lord) to show great strength, and who can withstand the might of your arm? Because the whole world before you is like a speck that tips the scales, and like a drop of morning dew that falls on the ground.
But you are merciful to all, for you can do all things, and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent. For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. How would anything have endured if you had not willed it?
Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved?
You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living. For your immortal spirit is in all things. Therefore you correct little by little those who trespass, and you remind and warn them of the things through which they sin, so that they may be freed from wickedness and put their trust in you, O Lord.”
Invariably, being prone to pride, we more readily see negativity in others rather than positivity. In so doing, we are judging them and, by implication, telling God how he should judge them! St. Luke (6: 36-38) gives us the ingredients for our prayer:
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”…