Matthew 3:13-17 Listen!
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
You are the beloved
Roy W. Howard
Something happened to the baptismal bowl. You probably didn’t notice. It’s a tiny thing. It occurred sometime on Christmas Eve with the hot glow of candlelight underneath its rim. When the tiny crack on the glass was first pointed out to me I was upset, not angry, just disappointed that the beauty of the bowl was now marred. Forever.
Then something different occurred to me.
Across the bowl is written this line from Jesus’ baptism when the Holy Spirit descends upon him and proclaims his essential identity. You are God’s beloved says the Spirit as Jesus stands drenched in the Jordan river. That lbenediction rests upon all the baptized whose identity is joined with Christ, God’s eternal son. Given all that each is of us is carrying, most of it secret, this is a benediction that we do well never to forget. You are God’s beloved. Put it where you put all things that you wish to keep forever and never let go; like the cherished hand written letter (what is that?), the photo and the keepsake that always reminds you what matters most. You are God’s beloved.
So what changed my concern about to the crack in the bowl from disappointment to gladness? I think a symbol of the Church fulfills its purpose best when it actually connects to what is real. And what is more real than the fact that we are not perfect people? Yes, you are God’s beloved, but you are also a person who is … how shall I put it? … slightly cracked. Or if you prefer, your beauty is marred simply by living this mortal life. It may be so slight that you hardly notice, and probably others don’t notice about you. On the other hand, some of us have cracks that are obvious to ourselves and anyone who spends even a passing moment with us. Let’s just say my family is well aware that I am cracked. And so are you. Sorry to put it to you that way.
It is not always apparent how these things occur that mar our beauty; Augustine thought the cracks come with the human condition and are embedded in being mortal. He echoes what Saint Paul says so honestly about his struggles to be faithful: “I do not understand my own actions … The good that I wish to do, I don’t do and the evil that I do not want to do, is what I do.” Henri Nouwen, of blessed memory, speaks of The Wounded Healer. Our wounds once healed remain with us; something like the permanent scars that remind you of the time you scrapped your knees or broke your heart. From these healed wounds we are capable of joining in empathy with others whose wounds remain places of pain.
This is the thing about these cracks and wounds that mar our beauty: you can spend a great deal of energy spackling them over and over again trying to hide the embarrassment of your flawed self. It’s a common occurrence to hear someone say after a moral lapse or occasion when sin overcame their best intentions: “I can’t go to worship after what I’ve done.” Really? Or after a divorce or some other failure that has driven a stake in your heart, one can’t come to Church.
Really? Is that what we are doing in worship: welcoming only those whose spackling has not worn off yet? In all honesty this assumption lies underneath so much of religion and other forms of spirituality. The bowl must be without a visible crack. The scars that are my life should remain hidden at all costs.
When I stepped down two flights of stairs to a church basement hall with a low ceiling I didn’t know what to expect. I was there to honor a friend’s 10th anniversary of sobriety at his AA meeting. There were young people with tatoos and torn jeans, sitting on metals chairs next to people dressed for K street. I was a guest; invited to honor and to listen. A man stood to tell his story of recovery. He was one of those dressed for K street; and had lived with a great deal of success. Tonight he is telling with unvarnished honesty his dark descent into alcoholism as escape from his shame which only compounded his shame and failures which continued to mount until he sought as he said “to come clean about who I had become; only then did I become who I really am underneath the fog of pretension.” Rarely have I heard such honesty and with such clarity about what it is to be a cracked vessel radiant with beauty and dignity. As I walked up the stairs, out into the evening, I was crying with something close to joy.
Why joy? Because I believe the cracks in your crystal self are the honest reminders of the paradox at the heart of the Christian life. You are God’s beloved. Your life is hidden with Christ in God. That is you truly and there is nothing you can do to change that astonishingly beautiful reality. Yet, until your baptism is made complete in death, you are living a process of becoming fully who we are in God.
Our cracks and wounds and flaws do not define us completely, they become the reminders of who we are becoming in Christ and do not need to be hidden or denied. They can be, in fact, the occasion to show the living Spirit at work in our lives using our wounds for the love of others.
Today we have renewed our baptismal promises. We need not deny the cracks, hide the wounds or pretend we are not marred. We only need to rejoice that in Christ, you are the beloved. In Christ are all the treasures of this life and the next. Rejoice and be glad.