In Matthew’s Gospel, just before the passage we read today, John the Baptist compares his ministry to Christ’s in the following way: I baptize only with “water for repentance”, whereas the one “who is coming after me” will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt 3:11). In the scene of the Baptism at the Jordan, Jesus seems to be following John’s script. Yet we see to see only half of the prophecy fulfilled. We see the Holy Spirit descending like a dove. But where is the fire?
On the face of things, there is nothing “fiery” about today’s Gospel. No visions of flames. No inflammatory speeches. But this is only on the face of things. There are these words, which the Father addresses to Christ: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. And underneath these gentlest of words, there is fire.
I know that there’s fire in these words for one simple reason: we don’t like to get too close to them.
Let me explain what I mean. In today’s Gospel, Jesus receives a tremendous affirmation from His Father, a revelation of His identity: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. These words, of course, extend to us as well. In Baptism we ‘put on Christ’ and become beloved sons/daughters of the Father. At baptism, the Father said to each of us, You are my beloved son/daughter, in whom I am well pleased.
And when we come truly to accept these words, they are fire. They are fire because they communicate God’s approval of us at the deepest level. For to be loved as a son or daughter is to be loved at the level of origin and being: “How wonderful that you exist!” It’s pure gift. This is the flame’s center. And the whole task of the Christian life is to draw closer to this center, to accept ever more deeply that we are beloved sons and daughters of so good a Father.
Paradoxically, these words are the hardest to accept. We keep a respectful distance from the fire of love for the same reason we stay away from physical fire: “self”-preservation. And by “self” here I mean the set of qualities and accomplishments upon which we build our “self”-esteem and “self”-image—our intelligence, competence, wit, beauty, or even our generosity and good character. It’s this “self” that we want valued and affirmed. If God would only value our talents and successes as we do, then we could hold our heads high. We wouldn’t have to go before Him empty-handed. But God’s fire leaves us beggars. And so we avoid the flame. We prefer God’s warmth to His fire.
Yet Christ tells us that has come, not to spread warmth, but to cast fire on the earth. He insists because he knows that the love we least want, is the love we most need. He knows that we need to accept His love at the deepest level of our being, where the only proper response is a beggar’s gratitude. For when we accept only the approval that follows upon our talents and accomplishment, we live in perpetual anxiety. If our success were our only source of dignity, then any failure would undermine our claim on love. Any diminishment of our youth, usefulness, and independence would diminish us as persons. One doesn’t have spend a lot of time pondering the articles in Cosmo, the ads on the evening news, the hours we log at the gym, or the sacrifices we make for our careers to be convinced that the world is full of this fear. We sift through the attention and the compliments that come from our efforts, hoping to find the words our hearts long to hear: You are my beloved son/daughter, with whom I am well pleased…
Ironically, these healing words are drowned out by the applause of our own success. Such approval tells us only that we have done well, not that we are good. But to know that we are good, to live free from the anxiety of falling behind, this would be fire. And this fire would quickly spread.
But a question remains: How then do we come to hear this voice, touch this flame, accept more deeply that we are God’s sons and daughters? There is, of course, no fool-proof method. If there were, the spiritual life would become simply another arena for our achievement, another way of doing well. No, the most we can hope to do is to dispose ourselves, to put ourselves in the way of His love. We do so by doing as Jesus did: we stand in line with sinners and bring our darkness before the Lord—especially in sacramental confession. We also dispose ourselves by being faithful to personal prayer, by making retreats, and by coming here Sunday after Sunday, where we pray for freedom from all anxiety, where we receive Christ–the fire of love.
St. Gregory of Nyssa once described Christians as “heirs of fire” (On Love of the Poor, 7). Let us pray that, through the mystery of the Baptism of the Lord, we might come into our baptismal inheritance, that we might be all fire for Him.