On coming out of the water Jesus saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
O God, whose Only Begotten Son
has appeared in our very flesh,
grant, we pray, that we may be inwardly transformed
through him whom we recognize as outwardly like ourselves.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen
Alt. Collect, Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
The Christmas Season ends and Ordinary Time begins with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. As Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan, his deepest identity, which is also his mission, is proclaimed to himself and to the world. He is the beloved child of God. God’s delight and favor rests on him, and he pleases God by being that which is his call, by living out the unique task and assignment that is his.
The alternative collect for the Feast asks of God that we might be “inwardly transformed through him whom we recognize as outwardly like ourselves.” We see that Jesus is a human being, as we are. We recognize the humanity we share in common. What we cannot see with bodily sight is the true nature and call of Jesus. So too with ourselves. God is always announcing in our lives what was heard of Jesus at his baptism, that we also are God’s beloved children and that as we live out that original calling, which is our mission, God is well pleased in us.
Yet, the prayer suggests that our living out of our call, mission, and destiny as God’s children, requires of us a continual process of transformation. The Cambridge Dictionary defines “to transform” as follows: “ to change completely the appearance or character of something or someone, especially so that that thing or person is improved.” All of which suggests a strange paradox. To become who we really are we have to change. As Cardinal Newman famously put it: “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” God sees who we are and loves us. Yet for us to be the one whom God loves requires that we live constantly open to formation, reformation, and transformation. Adrian van Kaam points out that creation in many of its forms lives and grows by spontaneous unfolding. Given food and water, and by the light of the sun, the seed will spontaneously unfold into the plant. Yet, for us, we can only become the fruit of the seed that is our potential through a process of formation, by willingly receiving the form that is given to us and giving form to our life and world accordingly. This is our life and our mission.
Our willingness, our good will, as a participant in our own development and formation, however, is manifest in our willingness to change, to reform that in us which is not faithful to the original unique call and mission that is our deepest identity. As I reflect on my own life from the perspective of older age, I am fully aware that I am often unable to be the presence to others that I have the potential to be because of the fearfulness, laziness, and selfishness of my past. In my current situation, for example, I find myself involved with members of my own and other communities who speak French but little or no English. In both high school and college, I took courses in French, but my own fear and timidity kept me from risking in the ways that would have been required to really learn to hear and communicate in French. I did what we often do in life faced with difficult challenges, I contrived to get a passing grade without really working to learn in such a way that my life was changed. I now realize that to do this would have required that I face the same fear and hesitancy in myself that delayed my speaking as a very young child.
It is only in relatively recent years that I have made the connection that my hesitancy in taking the risk necessary to learn a new language is the same hesitancy that blocked me from speaking for so long as a child. Shame and fear of humiliation surrounding my self-expression, what often manifested and still manifests as shyness, continues to this day to diminish my ability to be present to and so care for others. Now the point of this is not guilt or self-recrimination. It is rather to suggest that the treasure we hold is truly in an earthen vessel, that the seed of our Divinely given identity and call is vulnerable to all of the deformations, personal, familial, cultural, and religious that have led to our current state of character and personality. At any given moment of our lives, our hearts are formed by both formative and deformative, consonant and dissonant dispositions. Every moment of our lives from beginning to end offers us the possibility for formation, reformation, and transformation of those dispositions. In this very moment, I realize the need to move against those habits of being in myself that would lead me to withdraw and isolate. While I may not now be able to speak a common language with those around me, I can attempt to make contact and communicate with them as best I can, rather than withdraw in shame and humiliation at not being able to “speak properly.” It may be that I have more light to offer others from those places where I am not quite so fluent or even glib. Perhaps it is in my very limits that my call and mission to be for others will be more manifest than it is in my sense of power and competence.
To live constantly open to reformation, and so potentially transformation, does not come easily to us. It is competence and even power that the world values. Openness to transformation, however, requires that we constantly live in the awareness of our incompleteness, our smallness, and our powerlessness. It is a continual reckoning with the ways we have refused to become the one we are called to be, the child of God on whom God’s favor rests. That favor is always resting on us, and on who it is we are called to become. That favor is also the source of our mission. It is impossible to know God’s love for us, even as we fail to live up to it, without having a burning desire that others recognize it as well in themselves. It is the truth of our all being in formation together and having to struggle to give ourselves to the hard work of reforming what is foreign and dissonant in us that makes us companions on the way.
When Theodore James Ryken speaks of his brotherhood as a group of people who are “to help, encourage, and edify one another and who work together,” he is recognizing that we are always and everywhere in formation, that we are the beloved of God, but that we can only be transformed into that truth by helping each other in our attempts at formation and reformation, that the only way we can become who we are called to be is with the help of each other. This continual formation and reformation is the very life and essence of our being together in a community, a community that in its humility and compassion is open to all who would seek transformation with us.
. . to work at ourselves becomes not only the prime moral obligation, but at the same time, in a very real sense, the prime moral privilege. To the extent that we take our growth seriously, it will be because of our own desire to do so. And . . . as we become free to grow ourselves, we also free ourselves to love and to feel concern for other people. We will then want to give them the opportunity for unhampered growth when they are young, and to help them in whatever way possible to find and realize themselves when they are blocked in their development. . . . Whether for ourselves or for others, the ideal is the liberation and the cultivation of the forces which lead to self-realization.
Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth