Baptism of the Lord

A homily by Sister Teresa Jackson, January 10, 2021

I had a whole homily prepared for today.  It had some good lines in it, possibly a good point. But I had finished it before the events of Wednesday and the riot at the nation’s capitol and the shameful images and actions of violence and desecration of a place our country holds sacred.

I don’t know about you all, but I feel angry, overwhelmed, I’m in disbelief, I’m scared, I feel frozen, not knowing which way to turn, what to do, what to think.

As I reflected on what happened in Washington it occurred to me that perhaps today’s feast has a very difficult, important lesson for us. Today we commemorate Jesus, the Son of God, going to the Jordan to experience John’s baptism of repentance. Why did Jesus need to be baptized, what did he have to repent of? I mean there was that one time when he stayed in the Temple and scared the ever-living daylights out of his parents, but really, Jesus? Repenting?

But course he knew something that we don’t know, something that is very, very hard to accept. Jesus didn’t need to be baptized but he did it anyway, because being human means repenting and starting over, again and again and again. Even if you haven’t done anything, even if you have to wrack your brain before you go to the sacrament of reconciliation, you go anyway because none of us ever truly understand our need for healing and forgiveness, there’s stuff we’re blind to, stuff we aren’t aware of.  

And so Jesus gave us a model of being in solidarity with people who did really did need to repent. Jesus went into the water along with the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the people who collaborated with the repressive Roman regime. He didn’t stand on the shore of the Jordan saying “yeah you guys really need to be baptized!” Jesus is saying that even though he didn’t have anything to repent of, well, maybe that incident with money changers in the Temple, he is embracing the brokenness of humanity. Jesus is baptized by John and essentially says, “I’m one of you, I share your brokenness, I’m not condemning you for the awful things you’ve done, together, let’s repent and start over.” He’s saying that not only to the people who just got dunked he’s also saying it to the spectators on the side of the river who think they’re fine, they don’t need to be baptized.

Meanwhile, last week we saw a riot that shook many of us to our bones. We watched the videos of people literally, physically attacking the core institutions of our democracy and many, many of us were horrified.

And, I’ll be honest, I want them to repent. I want those people to admit and accept the horror of their actions. They need to repent. I didn’t do anything.  I don’t have any reason to repent. I don’t need to go down to the Jordan like Jesus.

But Jesus did undergo a baptism of repentance for sins and maybe that was the source of his compassion. Jesus knew what a hot mess most people are, what a hot mess most of us are. Jesus embraced the totality of human brokenness even though he didn’t share it. Jesus knew it isn’t just notorious sinners who need to repent, it’s the “good” people who also need to repent, the people who haven’t really done anything wrong, who pray every day, who belong to monasteries.

The baptism that Jesus participated in means calling all of us to turn around, to face how and where we have fallen short of the glory of God, and to say that healing and reconciliation in our country will not come from simply judging and condemning others, it will come from acknowledging the common humanity and failure we share even with people who do things we consider reprehensible, things that are reprehensible. The metanoia that we are called to means acknowledging my own need for healing and forgiveness as well as that of others. It means saying that we all stand together in need of forgiveness, we all need to turn our lives around, and trust in the grace of God.   

In the scene at the Jordan there were a lot of people who decided to turn their lives around, that’s why they were there. There were people who had done horrendous things and wanted to demonstrate their commitment to change.  And, there were people standing on the river bank watching the show who didn’t think they needed to be in the river. There were probably people standing on the riverbank who had done things that were the equivalent of the mob violence we saw on Wednesday but on the same riverbank, also watching, there were also good people who followed God’s law, who prayed and did everything right and didn’t think they had any reason to turn their lives around.

We can probably all name the things that rioters need to repent of. But what are the reasons the rest of us need to go under the water? For myself: Self- righteousness? Yeah, (raise hand) Being judgmental? Yeah, (raise hand) Not believing that people can change? Yeah, (raise hand). I didn’t take part in or in any way support the horrendous actions of Wednesday but healing and reconciliation in our country won’t happen unless I and all of us begin to see that this country is just us, not us and them.

Metanoia means everyone is being invited down to the Jordan.  Transformation is what Jesus modeled when he took on human nature, a nature that means all of us are far from the image of God we were created to be. Repentance includes condemning sinful actions of our own and others, it means speaking out when atrocities have taken place, but it also means saying no one can be dismissed as irredeemable.  

Condemnation and judgment are cheap, they’re easy, especially after the events of Wednesday. But Jesus never calls us to the cheap, easy way. We all need to hear and do the incredibly hard work of acknowledging where we’ve fallen short and the call to reconciliation that comes with it. Now, will everyone be open to reconciliation? Will everyone even acknowledge that they’ve done anything wrong? Of course not. But we cannot say we’ve heard Jesus’ message without claiming our own need to turn from things like judgment, making assumptions about people, not working for healing, taking the easy road of unilaterally dismissing and condemning people.  

What happened on Wednesday was horrific, inexcusable and needs to be condemned. Let us hear it as a call for those who committed those actions and those who supported and enabled them to repent and change. But let us also hear it as a call to those of us who need to emulate Jesus’ example in a much deeper, more radical way. Let us repent by undertaking the hard work of attempting reconciliation and healing in our deeply fractured nation.   

And if we are to embrace the call of Christ it means facing and changing the worst parts of ourselves and it means working towards reconciliation with people who commit atrocities. Will this be easy? Of course not. But as Christians isn’t this what we signed up for? To invite ourselves and all others into the transformative power of God’s healing love. And perhaps, when we engage, deeply engage in this hard way, this way of the cross, perhaps we too will come out of the water of repentance and hear the voice: “this is my beloved daughter, my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Sister Teresa Jackson, OSB

Sister Teresa delivered this homily at Mass on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, January 11, 2021. Watch the recorded live-stream.