Scholars say that the mythic elements in today’s story– the sky opening, the voice of God, the descent of the dove—are common to spiritual experiences in many religious traditions. What makes Jesus’ unique? Even in more ordinary circumstances, he remained attuned to the source of that experience: to God his father.
Whether he was engaged in hot debate, confronting hideous disease, or teaching in the marketplace, Jesus didn’t forget that voice, that spectacular affirmation. He acted always as God’s beloved child. Furthermore, he saw everyone else through that same lens—no matter how cantankerous, sick, or stupid they were.
Do we? When doing dishes or driving, do we remember we are precious? Confronting a crisis, do we carry into it the same qualities that have gotten us this far: our courage, strength or skill? When we’re angry, mistaken, rejected, exhausted, ill, betrayed, depressed, unemployed, or told we’re worthless, does that sense of affirmation rise up within?
What God said to Jesus, God says to us: “you are my dearly beloved child. I’m pleased with you.” That should matter more than all the applause or awards in the world. And we should in turn hear that same description of everyone we meet.
This experience marks a pivotal point for Jesus: he emerges from it energized and inspired for his public ministry. Even in the long desert days, he must hear the echoes of that voice. When we’re tempted to focus on the criticisms, we could turn instead with joy to that life-giving praise.
The first thing we must get straight is that a holy family isn’t a perfect family. Today’s gospel corrects any delusions about Jesus’ family being the perfect model. If a sentimental writer were describing his childhood, the family would stay pleasantly secure in a thatched cottage with climbing roses and a picket fence. Jesus would chat amiably with the squirrels and perform a miracle whenever Mary or Joseph needed help. Presto, bongo! A clean kitchen or a full water jug.
Instead, they share the dismal lot of harried refugees across the centuries: a hasty departure, a fearful journey, exile in a land where the language, foods and customs are foreign. Even their return home is overshadowed by the reigning thug. If Herod was mean and brutal, his son would likely be too. (“Like father, like son” is true not only for the healthy ones.)
By being part of a real family, not an ersatz, phony, plastic one, Jesus blesses our own families, with all their messy grit. He shows us that the family—not the church, retreat house, university or seminary—is the primary school of love and forgiveness. In ways that are charming, stupid or violent, families make mistakes. Furthermore, they are innocent victims of oppression like Herod’s. None of that seems to bother Jesus. He could’ve become human and lived his earthly life in a palace, synagogue or military post. Instead, he comes to an ordinary family, with all the graces and scars that entails. Thank God for that!
Just as the overture to a Broadway musical sounds themes that will recur in later songs, so the Prologue to John’s gospel begins ideas that will be developed later. One that is especially relevant today is how God seeks out human beings, making them God’s own children. Always, God tries to change human darkness into stunning light.
To apply that truth to our own experience, we might reflect on verse 16: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” What have been the special graces in our lives, spilling over from God’s fullness? Have we been aware of them, and thankful?
No matter what our worries are: about scarcity or loss, unemployment or loneliness, illness or death, today we set them aside and rest in the fullness of God’s overflowing love. This is a day to focus on the wonder of God becoming human, uplifting us all to be brothers and sisters of Jesus. Isaiah expresses the good news: “the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (52:9). In this case, Jerusalem stands for all of us: redeemed, graced, blessed, joyful.
On this day, we sing carols around the crèche, change the prayer space color from purple to white or gold, worship with our faith community, ring the bells, enjoy the decorations, laugh, tell stories, eat the feast and relish Christmas cookies. If that sounds a bit self-centered, we’re also called to hospitality: as in the Benedictine tradition, to welcome all guests as Christ.
Today’s gospel passage begins two themes, expressed through symbols, that recur throughout John. Take this opportunity to trace the references to light and water. In the prologue, Jesus is the light which enlightens everyone. The Jewish writer Elie Wiesel describes a relevant experience in the Nazi concentration camps. Trudging through darkness after exhausting labor, prisoners saw the light in a small cottage. “Ah,” they remembered. “Even in the worst dark, the light still shines.”
In John 8:12, Jesus calls himself the light of the world. In John 9, he cures the blind man and criticizes those who think they see light, but are really blind.
John’s baptizing with water is no accident. In the magnificent artistry of this gospel, the symbol connects with the Samaritan woman, to whom Jesus promised water gushing up into eternal life (4:4-42). He walked on water to his frightened disciples (6:16-21). On the Feast of Tabernacles he promised, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and…drink” (7:37). From him, living water would flow into believers.
Jesus told protesting Peter at the last supper that he must have his feet washed in water or he could have “no share with me” (13:8). Jesus refers not only to the foot washing, but also to standing within the long flow of love that began in Genesis and continues through our day.
In a terrible irony, the source of refreshment was himself thirsty on the cross (19:28). When the soldier pierced Jesus’ side, “blood and water came out” (19:34).
“The Church is not a refuge for sad people. The Church is a house of joy.” -Pope Francis
In Kathy Coffey’s latest article, The Joy of Being Catholic, she offers reasons for our Catholic joy:
When Catholics are baptized, the Christian community welcomes them “with great joy.” Not with an agenda, criticism, challenge, or a 14-page questionnaire. Instead, new members are welcomed with the “great joy” (Lk 15:5) of the shepherd who hoists the lost sheep onto his shoulders, focused more on love than sin.
You can read the rest of the article here.