Saturday, January 11, 2014

To each of us, the moment of choice and decision comes; we have the option to run, to watch, or to immerse ourselves completely in the challenge of life (Reflections on the Feast of the Lord's Baptism, Matt. 3:13-17)


"I am a bow in your hands, Lord; 
draw me lest I rot".
"Do not overdraw me, Lord; 
I fear shall break".
"Overdraw me, Lord; do with me as you please. Who cares if I break!"

- Nikos Kazantzakis, "Prayers of Three Kinds of Souls"

Today Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan. Liturgically, today’s Solemnity marks the end of the Christmas Season, and the beginning of what we call ‘Ordinary Time’. Beginning Monday, liturgical color shifts from white back to green. Today’s gospel reading likewise marks the beginning of the public life of Jesus, the start of his ministry, and the end of his peaceful, quiet, home life with his family in Nazareth.

Chronologically, we skip thirty years from the day Jesus was born—Christmas day, to this day, when he is baptized by his cousin at the Jordan. He spent thirty years preparing himself for this day, and he will spend the next three years of his life preaching the Good News of God’s kingdom, healing the sick, and tending to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Jesus had waited for the right time, for the right signs maybe, for an indication that it was the moment for him to begin the work his Father had given him. Then John shows up on the scene, baptizing and calling himself the messenger sent to prepare the way of the Lord. That was the sign Jesus had been waiting for; it was the indication he needed from God.

This day therefore represents Jesus’ hour of decision. The moment when chronos (time as we ordinarily understand it) intersects and gives way to kairos (the ‘right’ and ‘opportune’ time, the moment of ‘decision’, the moment of ‘choice’).

Saint Augustine in his work, the Confessions, speaks of these two ‘kinds’ of time. The first being ‘chronological’ time, i.e. that kind of time measured by clocks, measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. It is time as we ordinarily experience and understand it; it is the kind of time with which we commonly measure our lives. It is human time.

Every so often, however, we experience a different kind of time, time as it feels ‘stretched’ or ‘shortened’; it is that kind of time that “flies when  you’re having fun”, time that seems so short because you’re enjoying yourself with a loved one or friend. It’s that kind of time that seems to fly so quickly when you’re enjoying yourself during vacation. But it’s also that kind  of time that seems to “go on forever” when you’re sitting in a boring lecture, or when you’re waiting for something or someone important. It’s that kind of time that children, most especially, experience as they await Christmas Day, when the eagerness and excitement for the day’s arrival makes them all giddy, as if the moment they anticipate and long for were already there.

This isn’t simply human time. Kairos, the way Saint Augustine saw it, is God’s time, the moment when the eternal and transcendent, enters into a most intimate yet subtle embrace with the temporal and immanent. We all have, at one point or another, and in varying degrees, experienced kairos, God’s time. At such moments, says Augustine, the soul feels itself “stretched” or “distended”, as if an hour were no more than a split-second, or in other instances, an eternity.

Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan was his own point when his chronos, his ordinary day to day life, lived in the quiet and comfort of his home, with his family at Nazareth, embraced his kairos, the moment of decision, the point of choice, the time when he knew in his heart, mind, body, and soul, that the work his Father had given him to accomplish, had to begin. It was his time.

Jesus’ time is ours as well. Another Christmas season has come to an end for us. What have we learned? What shall we take with us? Have we become better persons? Have we learned to love a little more? care a little more? be a little more happy and joyful, compassionate and forgiving, content and fulfilled with our lives?

The time of decision comes to each one of us, the moment when everything seems to come together, placing before us an inevitable reality from which we can neither run nor hide. It’s a point which we may accept or reject. Yet there is only acceptance or rejection; there is no wavering, no hesitation, no sitting on the fence, no postponement till a later time.

To each one of us will come that point when we have to choose, to make up our mind about something, to take the leap of faith, to forever fix our gaze forward—to ‘what is yet to come’, and to look back to ‘what has been’ not with nostalgic eyes that long for its return—for it never will—but with hearts and minds that have learned the great lessons of our past, from its high’s as well as it’s lows’.

Some of these occasions—these moments of choice and decision we shall yet encounter—will be momentous, like when some of us chose to get engaged, married, move from one place or work to another, or choose the priesthood or religious life. For myself, that moment came years ago, when I chose to leave someone who was so very special to me because I knew deep in my heart that I wanted nothing more in this life than to be of service to others in the priesthood.

Those moments are never easy. In fact they involve a lot of perplexity, anxiety, worry, and yes, sometimes even fear. At times they can be painfully excruciating. Yet as long as fear does not paralyze us, it’s ok to have some butterflies in our stomach every once in a while.

One thing’s for sure, occasions like these—when we do find ourselves having to make a big choice—will necessarily involve great risk. But such is life, isn’t it? Better to risk than continuously be undecided in life. Because to live one’s life without committing to something—even if we’re not absolutely certain of it’s results—is to live a wasted, frustrated, discontented, and ultimately, tragic existence.

Risk is a vital and inescapable aspect of our lives as human beings. It’s the only way we grow, mature, develop, prosper, and improve ourselves. An old and wise priest once told me—after I had poured my heart out to him concerning a tough decision I kept putting off—that there are basically three types of persons: (1) those who run, (2) those who watch, (3) those who commit.

The first two, he said, will most likely never experience the pain and difficulty of taking a risk, they will probably never experience disappointment and pain. But they will also never experience the joy of fighting for their dream, and eventually, the joy of achieving it. There is a certain degree of truth to that adage one often hears from athletes and those into weight training: “No pain, no gain. No risk taken, no success made possible”.

Jesus knew when John showed up that his moment of decision had come. Nazareth was a peaceful home for him for the past thirty years. Mary was there, his relatives and friends were there. It was his home: familiar, comfortable, convenient, secure and safe. But God had called him from this secure environment, and had called him to follow in what was to become the adventure of his life. So he bid his home goodbye and began his journey with and into the very heart of the God whom he so lovingly and intimately called “Father”, the God whom he knew with every fiber of his being, would be to him as he was with the Israelites of old, “a pillar of cloud by day, a column of fire by night”. He knew his Father would never abandon him.

The message for each one of us of the great feast we celebrate today is simple: Do not be afraid. God will be with you. He calls you to follow him, and to be like his beloved Son. Have no fear then; for he will take you by the hand and guide you, in everything that you do. And at your journey’s end, he will be there, waiting for you with open arms, as a Father welcomes his son or daughter home.

As yet another Christmas Season comes to an end, may we bear this thought in mind, and may it be our source of strength, may it guide, orient, and direct our path this year, as we go about living in our Father’s presence, throughout Ordinary Time.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)