The nature of this one Reality is such that it cannot be directly and immediately apprehended except by those who have chosen to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit.
Today in the Christian tradition we clebrate the Baptism of the Lord. There are two texts about this feast that I love to quote. The first one is this: The voice of God the Father made itself heard over Christ at the moment of his Baptism so as to reach humanity on earth by means of him and in him: “This is my Beloved!” Jesus did not receive this title for himself, but to give its glory to us. Now if I had read that out of context I might have made some kind of joke about it being a bunch of New Age hooey––“Oh sure, it’s all about me! It’s all about us. Perfect for the Me Generation and our navel gazing culture!”––except for the fact that it’s from St Cyril of Jerusalem, and it wasn’t a slip of the tongue or the pen. It’s in the Catechism, which follows it up by saying that Everything that happened to [Jesus] lets us know that, after the bath of water, the Holy Spirit swoops down upon us from high heaven and that, adopted by the Father’s voice, we become children of God. (CCC, 537) So it is all about us! Everything that happened to Jesus happened so that we would know that we become children of God. Jesus didn’t receive the title “Beloved” for himself; he received it to give its glory to us.
There are two more sayings that I like to add to this, which again I have been quoting over and over again these past few weeks. St Basil the Great is even bolder than St Cyril: he writes that by the gift of the Holy Spirit of Jesus we become citizens of heaven; by the gift of the Holy Spirit of Jesus we are admitted into the company of angels... Through the Spirit we acquire a likeness to God; indeed we attain what is beyond our most sublime aspirations––by the gift of the Holy Spirit of Jesus we become God. I might have thought that that was a slip of the pen too, except that that is quoted in a prayer book called the Office of Readings, the official prayer book of the Church. Then there’s one more little text that I love to quote, and it happens right at Mass when the priest pours water into the wine (If I’ve mentioned this once I’ve mentioned it a thousand times): By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share the divinity of Christ who came to share in our humanity. That’s what this whole thing is about! Sharing in divinity!
Now, I often wonder why we don’t talk about all those things more. Last week at Holy Cross I preached about the mystery and the secret of Jesus’ message, all these same things: that we are called to be participants in the divine nature, that this is all about us, that the kingdom of heaven is among us and within us. And I told folks that they should go and tell everybody, and I still stand by that, too. That prayer of the priest, for instance, is one of those prayers that used to be called the “secret” prayers, and I was saying that they aren’t secret anymore.
But there’s also some validity to it being a secret too, because the wrong part of us hears those things, the unregenerate part of us, the part of us that doesn’t want to reform or repent. And that’s where the real meaning of Baptism comes in. All that was the Good News. Here’s the bad news…
We often forget that Baptism is a symbol of death before it is a symbol of new life. It’s a symbol of drowning. Water itself mythologically is both a symbol of life and of death. Think of the River Styx in Greek mythology that formed the boundary between Earth and the Underworld or Hades, with its ferryman Charon. That became part of the description of hell in the Christian West as well, in Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Blake’s Paradise Lost. But I am specifically thinking of the Red Sea: the Hebrews cross safely, but the Pharoah’s charioteers were drowned. It’s that event that gets remembered at Easter and at our Baptism. I’m also thinking of Jesus walking across the waters so many times in the Gospels, as if he were the new Charon and the new Moses, walking across the waters of death and guiding others safely across, too. But it’s almost as if he couldn’t do that––walk across the waters––until he had immersed himself in it first, allowed himself to drown. And so for us: somehow it’s only by drowning gracefully that we can walk the roads of earth with ease and grace as disciples of Jesus. It is only by something in us dying that we can access all that is promised to us by those other great writers: being divinized, participating in the divine nature, owning our real inheritance, becoming who we are.
Of course I can’t forget the diksha of sannyasa initiation when the renunciate goes into the water and strips off all the clothes and comes back out naked to be sent off wandering, dead to the world. I found out that according to classic Indian tradition you would feed a sannyasi with your left hand, the dirty hand, because the sannyasi is dead, and you wouldn’t want to touch a corpse and get defiled.
There’s a beautiful saying of St Clare of Assisi: Ne sono sicurissima il Regno dei cieli il Signore lo promette e lo dona solo ai poveri––“Of this I am sure, that the Lord promises and grants the Reign of heaven only to the poor.” We could say it this other way, too: the Lord promises and grants the Reign of heaven only to those who have drowned gracefully in the waters of Baptism, only those who have died in some way. Died to what? Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy points out that in all traditions––though he points mostly to the life of Jesus and to many Christian saints––Ultimate Reality is only clearly understood by those who have made themselves loving, pure in heart and poor in spirit. (PP, x) “… it is a fact which cannot be fully realized or directly experienced, except by souls… who have fulfilled certain conditions.” Then he quotes the famous phrase of St Augustine: Ama et fac quod vis––“Love and do what you will”; but he says you can only do this “when you have learnt the infinitely difficult art of loving God with all your mind and heart, and your neighbor as yourself…” (PP, 71) That is the baptismal death we have to undergo, over and over again.
The reason, perhaps, that we don’t shout all those other things about our sharing in divinity from the rooftops is because we might end up deifying our ego! We might think that we can just coast on this salvation that is granted us; we might think that we can rest back on our laurels and enjoy our exalted status. But it doesn’t work that way, at least not for us mere mortals. “Love and do what you will”; but you can only do this “when you have learnt the infinitely difficult art of loving God with all your mind and heart, and your neighbor as yourself…” That is the baptismal death we have to undergo over and over again in order to share in Jesus’ divinity. The Lord promises and grants the Reign of heaven only to the poor.
We should also hear this other thing too though, in the depths of our being, these words that Jesus was supposed to pass on to all humanity: You are my Beloved! Those words and that knowledge that we are the beloved, the knowledge that we are destined to inherit the reign of God, should make us want to find our real self, should make us long to discover that self that is already in some way already in union with God, created in God’s image, should make us want to know what it means to be a participant in the divine nature––and die to everything else but that in the waters of Baptism.
So, in a sense, Jesus says, Come on in! The water is fine––you may drown, but you won’t die. You real self, hidden in God, will arise, as a participant in divine nature.