Then Jesus appeared: he came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. John tried to dissuade him. “It is I who need baptism from you” he said “and yet you come to me!” But Jesus replied, “Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands”. At this, John gave in to him.
Matthew 3: 13-5
On this feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. The account begins with John’s resistance to baptizing Jesus, whom John understands should be baptizing him. Matthew’s inclusion of this discussion between John and Jesus would seem to be a response to a sense of embarrassment that existed in the Matthean community concerning the fact that Jesus was baptized by John. In other words, it is the evangelist’s wrestling with a real life difficulty that is besetting the community. It represents the fact that the text of the gospel is not an account of an insular fabulist but rather that it arises in dialogue with the actual life and experience of the community. The call and the actions of Jesus and John, as the very words of the gospel, arise out of the actual life of the world around them.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus famously declared that “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” There may, however, be a much more pervasive problem, not so much a philosophical but a moral and existential one, a mode of committing suicide by never living our own true life. In this sense, the question may be restated as follows: “Do I live in such a way that I realize, appreciate, and live in respectful response to others and the world, or are other persons and things merely props in my own grand narrative? Do I live a fable, a fiction of my own creation and to which I force others and reality to conform? Do I never really meet the other as other, because they are for me merely the role they play in my self-constructed story?”
The baptism of Jesus is often said to be the place where his “vocation” is declared to John and to all present: “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3: 17) It is of the very nature of “vocation,” of “life call,” that we receive it as a summons from God mediated through the reality of our lives and of our world. Frederick Buechner defines it succinctly: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” We can only truly know who we are as a response to “the world’s deep hunger.” The world, of course, is hungry for so much and in so many ways. Buechner, however, points out that there will always be quite specific convergences between our unique “deep gladness” and certain of those hungers. Living out our vocation will always require of us an ongoing appraisal and discernment of the real life and world that surrounds us. It will require, every day, that we attend to the world’s hungers as mediated by our life situations, and that out of our mind, heart, and body, we offer what we have in response.
Thus, vocation or life call is not static. We do not receive it at some point in early life and then force it on the world and on others. We do not tell others or the world what is good for them and that it is only us who can deliver it. Rather we leave ourselves aside and attend and listen to the others and the world as they are and allow their hungers to appeal to what we uniquely have to offer.
On Friday night, at the recommendation of a confrere, I watched a recent film of Anne Fontaine entitled The Innocents. The film is based on actual events at a convent in Poland at the end of the Second World War. A young nun comes to a French Red Cross center begging a young doctor to come to the convent and attend to several of the nuns who have been raped by pillaging soldiers and are in advanced stages of pregnancy and about to give birth. The abbess of the convent, panicked herself and fearful of scandal, is taking the infants away after birth. She is telling the sisters that she is taking them to their families, but in fact she is abandoning them, in her words, “to the providence of God.” Despite the horror of what this woman is doing, it unfortunately makes perfect sense to her in light of her own spiritual “grand narrative.” The infants are for her merely objects or props in that narrative. She is unable to hear the call they are in their need and vulnerability because of the strength of the pious story that dominates her life. By this point in her life, the fearful and contorted religious and moralistic story had become so rigid and atrophied that the reality of epiphany and incarnation, the “true voice” of vocation and call could not be recognized. Our human capacity for horror and for violence is unbridled when our own self-created story and identity become encrusted and unyielding, when the aspects of reality that do not fit it become threatening to us.
Religious communities of apostolic life speak often and readily of their call to mission. In its etymology mission means “to be sent.” At the point at which a person’s or a group’s mission becomes its possession, becomes reified in rigid ways of acting and being, it ceases to be vocation and call. The vast majority of congregations of apostolic life cease to exist after some years in part, perhaps, because they insist in perpetuating a mission that no longer is a point where their own “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Instead routine, professionalism, and security take over. Instead of being a response, in their heart’s gladness, to a hunger in the world, they perpetuate a work that is no longer uniquely theirs to do. The mission, our vocation, is not ours, either as individuals or as groups, to control and determine. It must always be received in new and appropriate forms throughout the course of our personal and communal lives.
Every human being is a call. “This is my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It is the call that we truly are with whom God is well pleased. The deepest source of spiritual dread would be of living out one’s years and never living the call that we are that comes from God and whose life and being is a constant return to God. We realize the call we are by waking up to the reality and truth of those around us. They are not mere props in the self-constructed story of our life and achievement. In their otherness and mystery they are, in fact, God’s calling us into being, into being the one whom God knows, loves and is pleased with.
Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you—your children’s lives, the lives of your husband, your wife, your friends—because that is just what you are powerless to do. Remember that the lives of other people are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business because they all have God whether they use the word God or not. Even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought.
Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets, Chapter 3