Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
In graduate school, I had the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The thought of walking in the footsteps of Jesus excited me. Along with walking the Stations of the Cross and standing on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, I looked forward to renewing my baptismal vows at the Jordan River. I imagined myself wading into the water as Jesus had, professing my faith and recommitting myself to following him.
However, when we arrived at Qasr al-Yahud, the place where tradition tells us John baptized Jesus, I was surprised by what I saw. It was not at all the beautiful place I had imagined. The water was brown and mucky. Where I expected to see white sand, there were rocks and reeds. There was no way I was getting in that water. So, as other pilgrims waded in, I stood on dry land renewing my baptismal vows from a safe, comfortable distance.
Later that night, while riding back to the hotel, a thought struck me. When Jesus came to earth, there was nothing glamorous about it. Our sinful humanity was no more appealing to the Son of God than the brown water of the Jordan River was to me. Yet, out of love for us, Jesus took on our human nature with all its weakness and suffering. He was willing to touch lepers, be seen with sinners, and suffer an agonizing death. If my baptismal vows were to mean anything, then I would have to be willing to move from the safe, comfortable dry land into the muddy waters.
In the many years that have followed, I’ve thought about my experience at the Jordan River. I think about it when I’m tempted not to make eye contact with a homeless person. I think about it when I want to drive past a beggar at an intersection. I think about it when my parish asks for volunteers and I tell myself I don’t have time to spare. Often, I still prefer to stay at a safe distance on dry land than to get wet and dirty.
This Sunday, we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Though sinless, Jesus submitted himself to the baptism of John the Baptist. He entered the waters of the Jordan River so that we could be baptized not just with water but with the Holy Spirit. Jesus humbled himself throughout his life on earth to bring us all the gifts of God’s love. The first gift is baptism, which opens us up to faith, to the Holy Spirit, and to all the other sacraments that follow.
Our baptism is a commitment we make to share Jesus’ concern for the lost and the broken. As Isaiah tells us in Sunday’s first reading, Jesus came “to open the eyes of the blind, to bring prisoners out of confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” If Jesus is willing to stoop down and live a life of service for the poor, we must be willing to do the same or we cannot call ourselves his followers.
We are all searching for God. If He has seemed distant and hard to find, it could be that we are looking in the wrong places. Perhaps we are looking on the mountaintops when we should be looking in the ghettos. Perhaps we are reading books when we should be feeding bellies. Until we are ready to get ourselves dirty, to risk our safety, and to give without counting the cost, God will remain elusive to us. However, if we can follow Jesus into the wet and murky places of our world, it could just be that we will be surprised by his marvelous light shining out from where we least expect it.
Douglas Sousa, S.T. L