THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD C 2013 #21
Is 40, 1-5. 9-11
Ti 2, 11-14, 3, 4-7
Lk 3, 15-16. 21-22
Peter Maurin Farm, Marlboro, N.Y.
January 13, 2013
Deacon Tom Cornell
“The Lord will bless his people with peace.”
Our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah foretells the coming of the Christ “upon whom I have put my spirit,” says the Lord. He will bring justice, a just peace, not just to Israel but to the nations as well. And he will do it not by raising an army, but quietly, gently. “A bruised reed he will not break.” He will not take advantage of anyone’s weakness but lift up all, friend and enemy alike. Then in our second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to Titus, the Lord addresses his Christ and calls him “a light to the nations to open the eyes of the blind, to bring prisoners out of confinement and from the dungeons those who live in darkness.” This has an eschatological meaning – that’s a fancy word that indicates it’s for the End Time, the Second Coming, the final establishment of His kingdom which will have no end. But it’s also meant to point to present reality. The mystery of the kingdom of God is that it is then and there but also here and now. By that I mean the fulfillment of the kingdom can only come about by God’s own intervention at the end of time, in the new heaven and the new earth foretold in Scripture, but it is also here and now in embryo, if you will, because He said “The kingdom of God is within you, in your midst.” Here and now, if we will have it. The blind see? The lame walk? Yes!
I saw it happen, yes I did, in Selma, Alabama, almost 47 years ago. It was Jesus Christ who led the March to Montgomery in the person of Martin Luther King. Most of the white people of Alabama were and are good Christian people. But many, very many were blind, blinded by the racist propaganda fed them by those who knowingly profited by setting race against race, worker against worker, by reinforcing negative stereotypes of black people and by propagating scare stories. Fear is a powerful weapon, and the root of war, as Thomas Merton put it. It’s still going on, mass media blinding people, making them believe that the poor are their enemies, that Muslims are their enemy, or the Chinese. Back then, in 1965, the stories they spread about us in the news media made us look like degenerate hippies or Russian Reds, wild. But as we marched through town and out on Alabama Rt. 80, the frightened people saw us for real, not as we were portrayed, ministers and priests and rabbis, nuns in full habit, and nicely scrubbed young and middle-aged and old men and women, black and white and who knows what, but normal, disciplined people, joined in a great cause for which we were willing to put our lives on the line, and I saw, as they watched us, I saw the scales fall from their eyes as Black people previously lame walked, as young and old Black people imprisoned in the dungeons of segregation walked out into the sun, heads held high. It was a glorious time.
We won, and we didn’t fire a shot, killed no one, injured no one, lied to no one, humiliated no one. And we won, through the power of nonviolence, the ethic of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount put into practice. The President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, a Southern white man, addressed a joint session of the Senate and the Congress, and the American people, and the world, and demanded the Voters’ Rights Bill of 1965 and he got it, and everything changed. The legal structures of racial segregation were dismantled. The sad, tragic irony is that today, more than a generation later, racial segregation is again the order of the day, not just in the South, but in Northern cities where more than ninety percent of some inner city schools are minorities. God does not show partiality, even if people still do.
Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles has Saint Peter come to the realization that God’s saving grace is available to people of all nations, not just the Jews, as he had been thought. The very first Gentile Peter will baptize is a soldier, a Roman soldier, a centurion in charge of one hundred men of the occupation force. That is startling! The first recruit among the Gentiles to the cause of the Prince of Peace was a Roman soldier! Did Cornelius renounce the use of weapons and refuse to kill? Military converts were required to do just that, even if their superior officers ordered them to do so, but we do not know. The Roman Army performed many tasks other than war-making, mail-delivery, for instance, and flood-control. We do know that Cornelius was of good conscience and the grace of God fell upon him. Many other soldiers, upon baptism or after deeper conversion, refused further military service, among them Saints Achilleus and Nereus, Saint Camillus and Saint Martin of Tours, the patron saint of soldiers who refused to be a soldier.
The Gospel reading simply affirms that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, is the one, the long-awaited Messiah, Christ. It is he who will usher in the kingdom of justice and peace. If the evening news does not reflect that truth, whose fault is that? Jesus Christ is our peace. We are his body in the world. Let’s show it, let’s prove it! The nonviolent Civil Rights movement offers a template. Jesus is the Commander in Chief of the nonviolent army. Yes, that is an army too, the nonviolent movement. We used to sing, “We are soldiers in the army; we have to fight; we know we have to die.” But far fewer die in the nonviolent struggle. And it ends in reconciliation and healing, not bitterness, resentment and envy.
The Lord will bless his people with peace! “The Lord has blessed his people with peace!” That is the Paschal Mystery, the meaning of the birth of Jesus, his ministry, his death and resurrection. He is our peace.