I Go Overboard in Explaining How the Judeo-Christian Tradition = God’s Preferential Option for the Poor

[This is a second reflection on a pair of Zoom experiences I had last Monday. I reported the first here – some comments I made at a meeting of the Y’s Men of Westport. What I said and my insistence on saying it had me wondering about my role in the world during this third stage of my life. How much should I say? To what extent should I just shut up?

Today, I’m reporting on a Zoom meeting later that same day. It had me co-leading a Lenten discussion at our new church in Westport, CT. It was our third pre-Easter session devoted to examining controversial topics connected with our faith. Two weeks earlier, we had discussed miracles, their nature and possibility. A week later, the topic was healing. The topic last Monday was the question of “Jesus for the poor.”

Because of my interest in liberation theology and its signature “preferential option for the poor,” one of our two pastors had invited me to co-lead the discussion with him.

With the pastor’s consent, here’s the way I approached it.]

Introduction

The question of Jesus and poverty is fundamentally a religious question. And religion, of course, is a language. It marries words and concepts to a fundamentally ineffable (beyond words) experience that is open to all people. When that experience occurs in China, it comes out as Buddhism or Confucianism; when it happens in India, it’s expressed as Hinduism; when it happens in Arabia, it takes the form of Islam.

When the religious impulse finds words among the world’s poor and oppressed committed to improving their collective lives, it is expressed as the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yes, I mean that: the biblical tradition (virtually alone among the world’s great literature) thematically reflects the religious consciousness of awakened and impoverished victims of imperialism.  

More specifically, the Judeo-Christian tradition found its origin among slaves in pharaonic Egypt. Those slaves formed a people (called Hebrews or “rebels”) who retained their worship of a God favoring ex-slaves, widows, orphans, and resident foreigners throughout their history of domination by empires of various sorts – under Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans.

The Tradition’s Foundational Story

That fact becomes clear when we consider the basic biblical story. According to virtually all mainstream scripture scholars, that narrative begins not with Adam and Eve in the garden, but with the liberation of a motley group of slaves of various ethnic identities. The story told to give them a sense of national unity runs as follows:

Jesus the Christ

Here it is important to note that Jesus appeared precisely in the prophetic tradition. His message represented a defense of the poor. This is abundantly clear from the program he articulated in Chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel:

Jesus’ program represented a reversal of the world’s values. Everything in God’s kingdom would be turned upside-down. According to Luke’s “Beatitudes,” the poor would be blessed, so would the hungry and thirsty along with those suffering persecutions. Meanwhile the rich would be condemned. “Woe to you rich,” Jesus is remembered as saying, “you’ve had your reward.” “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will soon be weeping.” In other words, Jesus’ understanding of God’s future entailed a complete reversal of the world’s social arrangement. As he put it, “The first would be last and the last would be first” (MT 20:16).

What’s more, the early Christian community’s interpretation of Jesus’ message underlined the entire tradition’s “preferential option for the poor.” In the first Christians’ efforts to follow the Master, they actually sold what they had and gave it to the poor. That way of life is reflected in three important passages from the Acts of the Apostles:

Jesus Romanized

With all of that in mind, you can see why the Christian message was so popular with slaves, the poor, with social outcasts. You can see how it inspired revolts as it spread throughout the Roman Empire. You can also understand why Rome became alarmed and famously ended up sponsoring all those persecutions which iconically fed so many Christians to lions and other beasts in the Colosseum. However, it was all to no avail – as Christianity continued to spread like wildfire.

So, at the beginning of the 4th century of our era, the emperor Constantine decided to co-op Christianity. But to do so, the new religion’s basic narrative had to be changed. It became Romanized and was effectively transformed into a Roman mystery cult.

Mystery cults worshipped gods like Mithra (whose feast day btw was Dec. 25th), Isis, Osiris, and the Great Mother God. Their stories had the god descend from heaven, die, rise from the dead and ascend to heaven from which s/he offered life everlasting to believers who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.

In Christian form, the narrative supporting such belief was best expressed by St. Augustine in the 5th century. Drawing on stories in the book of Genesis and on statements found in Pauline writings, this is the story with which Augustine shaped and captivated Christian belief for the next 1500 years: 

 

Notice here how the story abstracts not only from the histories of Judea and Israel, but from Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God and its Great Reversal in the here and now. Instead, everything is mythologized.

And that brings us to our discussion questions:

For Discussion

  1. What are your questions about the information in these slides?
  2. What surprised you about that information?
  3. What (if anything) do you find questionable or unacceptable about it?
  4. What are the implications of this approach to the bible and Jesus for your own faith?
  5. What are the implications of this approach for the Talmadge Hill Community Church?

My 1st & 2nd Mistakes

Of course, anyone reading what I’ve just presented can see that my first mistake was speaking too long and presenting too many new ideas for a 90-minute discussion. (My face is still bright red.)

My second mistake was even worse.

The slides I just presented had been shared beforehand with our group of about 20. And one member had done his homework. After expressing appreciation for my work, he went on to list in detail his points of disagreement. He began with his belief that the foundational story of the Judeo-Christian tradition was indeed found in Genesis, not Exodus. He went on to say that my presentation overlooked the crucial fact that Jesus is divine, the very Son of God, and that his words about poverty were meant to be taken in a spiritual rather than in a material sense.

In response, I should have kept silent. And if I chose to respond, I should have said, “I really appreciate your taking the time to express so well and clearly the most important points of the Augustinian story. What you’ve done sets us up perfectly for comparing the two basic biblical stories we’ve just reviewed. Does anyone else in the group have similar or different thoughts from the ones just expressed?”

That’s what I should have said.

However, instead (and forgetting all I’ve learned from 40 years of teaching this stuff) I attempted to respond point-by-point to the issues my friend had so well summarized.

Mine was such a bad decision that at one point, the pastor had to cut me off to give other people a chance. (As I said, my face is still a vivid crimson.)

Conclusion

I didn’t sleep well Monday night. I couldn’t help thinking, “When will I ever learn?” I even thought, “I’m getting too old to do this sort of thing. I think my days of teaching, public speaking, and playing leadership roles in church might be over. I’ve got to learn to say less and to stop trying to convince others about what I’ve learned over all my years of studying and dialoguing with Global South scholars. It’s all counterproductive.”

The next morning, however, things appeared a bit less dire. I received telephone calls of encouragement from the co-leading pastor and some others. Emails tried to console me. (But all of that almost made matters worse. It made me think, “They’re just trying to make me feel good. It must have been more awful than I thought.”)

The problem is that I still feel so passionate about rescuing the Jesus tradition from the irrelevance of its domestication by Augustine and subsequent theologians.

In a world of globalized poverty and exploitation, the life, words and teachings of the historical Jesus are too powerful to keep silent about. I’m just going to learn from this sobering, uncomfortable lesson and move on.

This is about something much bigger than my mistakes as a teacher.

How the Eucharist Transforms Us (Not Bread) into the Body of Christ

One Loaf

This Sunday Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), it was called Corpus Christi (Latin for “the Body of Christ”).

It’s a day when restorationist priests will preach “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected way back in the 4th century. He wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”

Most thinking Catholics have come to similar conclusions. But rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s shared bread, many of them have simply rejected the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasies akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because such rejection represents a dismissal of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

Let me explain.

To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, from the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.

But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:

Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.

“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well.

That was something even uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against Muslims and immigrants, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves.

That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.

Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.

Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.

Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All light-shafts from the sun are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.

In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one Body of Christ.

All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.

Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So, their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”

And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction is found in I COR: 12-12-27:

“12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so, we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts. . .
You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”

Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human-unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So, it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context. That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.

In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me. And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ, act together as I would.”

Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?

It’s powerful. The Eucharist is a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.

That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.

The world our grandchildren will inherit needs everything symbolized by all of that. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.

Keep that in mind this Sunday, when your priest lectures you on “the real presence.” The real presence is us.

(Sunday Homily) Happy Day of the Dead: Remembrances & Prayers

Day of Dead

Readings for the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls): WIS 3:1-9; PS 23:1-6; ROM 5: 6-11; JN 6: 37-40. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/110214.cfm

Today is the feast of All Souls – or as they call it in Latin America, the “Day of the Dead.” In Mexico, the commemoration of “the faithful departed” is really a triduum that begins on Halloween, proceeds through the Feast of All Saints (Nov. 1st) and finishes today with “All Souls Day” (Nov. 2nd).

In Mexico there are parades and costumes, and skeleton manikins dressed up in silks and finery. In a mocking, light-hearted way, the day reminds everyone of the shortness of life, the impermanent nature of pleasure, prestige, profit and power, and the inevitability of our own fast-approaching demise.

Since death is inevitable and an integral part of life, the Day of the Dead invites us all – “believers” or not – to recall those who have gone before us to “rest in the sleep of peace” and to ready ourselves for The Great Transformation by looking death square in the face.

So to begin with, think about your own loved ones who have passed away. No doubt, there’s some pain in doing that. After all, we loved them. In those terms, today I’m thinking especially of a dear friend and mentor of mine, Glen Stassen. He died unexpectedly this last year. He was a great scholar, teacher, author and peace activist. He taught me so much. And then there are those public figures – like Pete Seeger, Maya Angelou and Robin Williams – whom we all recently lost.

We miss people like that. Nonetheless, death does not wound us without at the same time offering new understandings and appreciations of the ways the lives of those loved ones continue in and around us. In some sense, the ripples of their stories have influenced not only us, but the entire universe.

That’s especially true of the mother and father figures in our lives (not always our biological parents, of course).

Allow me to set the tone by recalling (and honoring) my own parents for a moment.

I am fortunate to be able to identify my original Gift-Givers as my actual mom and dad – Edith and Ray Seul. I owe so much to them and the innumerable ways their lives and deaths have made me and my three siblings what we are. They were wonderful parents – not perfect to be sure – but wonderful all the same.

I think of my mother as my spiritual teacher. She was lovely and gentle, light-hearted, but at the same time quite serious about doing the right thing. Above all her simple faith governed her life. She was a convert to Catholicism having been brought up a Swedish Lutheran – as Edith Swanson. And while she was serious about being Catholic, she somehow made it clear that Protestants were O.K. too. Along with my female grade school teachers (the faithful Sisters of St. Joseph) mom’s example started me on the path to the priesthood and to ecumenical thinking. I love her for that.

I think of my dad whom I had the privilege of attending full time during the final weeks of his life. Dad was strong, a truck driver, and fun-loving. His brothers say he was a wild street-fighter in his youth. But then (they’d joke) he met my mother and she “made a man of him.” That’s how they put it.

Like my mother, Dad took his faith quite seriously too. He was a member of the Holy Name Society and went on spiritual retreats several times, I recall. He brought us back medals and “holy cards.” Dad clearly wanted to live a good life. That was true to such an extent that when I left the priesthood and decided to marry my wife, Peggy, he chose not to come to our wedding. I’m convinced it was a matter of conscience for him. Peggy and I would be living in sin, he thought, and he could not appear to give his approval. None of that however prevented him from later accepting Peggy and loving her.

Yes, I’m grateful for my parents. I love them, and miss them. Not a morning passes without my offering prayers of thanksgiving for mom and dad. So on this Day of the Dead, my mind is filled with nostalgia (rather than sadness) over their loss.

The Day of the Dead also brings that urgency I mentioned earlier – around my own fast-approaching death and the need I feel to use these declining years to make my contribution to a world careening towards disaster as never before. It’s also a time for imagining what awaits me after I breathe my last.

For the past few years the great fifth century mystic, Augustine of Hippo, has helped me think about death, its process and what comes after. He wrote a very long sentence I’ve found so helpful in thinking about death that I’ve committed it to memory and often use for meditation. Here’s what Augustine said. See if his words help you:

Imagine if all the tumult of the body were to quiet down, along with all our busy thoughts about earth and sea and air; if the very world should stop, and the mind stop thinking about itself, go beyond itself, and be quite still;

if all the fantasies that appear in dreams and imagination should cease, and there be no speech, no sign:
Imagine if all things perishable grew still – for if we listen they are saying, “We did not make ourselves; he made us who abides forever” – imagine then, that they should say this and fall silent, listening to the very voice of the one who made them and not to that of God’s creation;

So that we should hear not his word through the tongues of men, nor the voice of angels, nor the clouds’ thunder, nor any symbol, but the very Self which in these things we love, and go beyond ourselves to attain a flash of that eternal wisdom which abides above all things:

And imagine if that moment were to go on and on, leaving behind all other sights and sounds but that one vision which ravishes, absorbs, and fixes the beholder in joy; so that the rest of eternal life were like that moment of illumination that leaves us breathless:

Would this not be what is bidden in scripture, “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord?

So that’s what happens in death, is it? The end of the world – bodily sensations, thought, and fantasies; great stillness within and without; no sound from human voice or nature itself; but immersion in wisdom, light and breathless joy. That’s what awaits us. At least Augustine thought so.

How different (and so much more consoling) is that vision from what I once anticipated in terms of “the last things” as so wonderfully, but (for the naïve) misleadingly expressed in Dante’s immortal Divina Comedia: death, judgment, heaven, hell. I can no longer believe that as literally as I once did. In fact, I’m persuaded to make my own the prayer of a medieval mystic. (This is another passage I use for my meditations):

Lord, if I love you because I desire the joys of heaven, close its gates to me. And if I love you because I fear the pains of hell, bury me in its depths. But if I love you for the sake of loving you, hide not your face from me.

The mystic’s prayer is a rejection of the childish, hedonistic, and self-interested beliefs about the after-life that I was brought up on. It’s an embrace of the mystical vision that recognizes harmony with God (or Ultimate Reality, the Ground of Being, or Nature with a capital “N”) as the purpose of life. All those other goals (pleasure, profit, power, prestige), I’ve found, are empty and quite misleading.

That learning was reinforced in India last year during our four months in Mysore. The idea of reincarnation, I learned, is not far-fetched and is in some way supported by the theory of evolution. And so on this Day of the Dead, I make my own the prayer that my meditation teacher, Eknath Easwaran recited on his own death bed – once again using the personal term “Lord” to address the mysterious Origin of the things that matter: Life and Love:

Lord, fill my heart with love and devotion for you. And burn out the seeds of selfish desire and sense craving from my mind. Grant that I might be carried by you from this life to the next without suffering, and that I might be born into a holy family with my hear overflowing with love and devotion to you from my earliest childhood onward.

I want that to be my prayer on my death bed.

There’s a final thought I’d like to share with you on this day of the dead – this one from the great American poet, Stanley Kunitz. “The Long Boat” is a poem that reminds me strongly of my father in law, Bob duRivage, who was a sailor and (in my opinion) a sage, and a saint. He loved life and left this world reluctantly. Because of its sailing theme and the poem’s last line, I committed it to memory in Bob’s honor. Because the poem is about death, I hope (on this Day of the Dead) that it may also you think deep thoughts about your own approaching demise and make decisions accordingly:

When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
that caring.
He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
endlessly drifting.
Peace! Peace!
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn’t matter
which way was home;
as if he didn’t know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.

Jesus Decides to Redeem His Wasted Life (Sunday’s Homily)

Readings for Feast of Baptism of the Lord: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/011313.cfm

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In that context, let’s think about baptism and the differences between the understandings we’ve inherited and those reflected in the practice of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. Those differences hold practical implications for our own lives as we wrestle with a faith that may have lost meaning for us, and as we struggle with the relative smallness and insignificance of our lives.

To begin with, think about traditional beliefs about baptism. If you’re like me, you may find them hard to swallow. A friend of mine, theologian Tony Equale, has recently pointed out that theology doesn’t really determine worship patterns. Instead superstitious temple and church rituals have shaped our beliefs. Practice determines belief, not the other way around. (See http://tonyequale.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/the-religiosity-of-the-people/)

What my friend means is that theology’s job has traditionally been to rationalize what people actually do in their efforts to tame life and achieve contact with the numinous, the mysterious, and the transcendent. They sacrifice chickens, behead bullocks, or vivisect lambs and then burn the animals’ carcasses. The smoke thus ‘feeds’ the Gods who are believed to need nourishment, placation, and cajoling in order to do the will of the people and their priests. Those congregations actually turn out to be more intelligent than the God who must be informed of their needs and what is best for their welfare. That’s superstition.

Catholic beliefs around baptism and the “sacrifice of the Mass” are cases in point. They were actually formed by the People’s credulous practice of baptism which was informed more by ancient ideas of all-powerful angry Gods than by Jesus’ radical teaching that God is Love. I mean early on, in a time of very high rates of infant mortality, popular belief came to see infant baptism as necessary to somehow save deceased children from a hell created by a threatening God.

This practice of the people rather than reflection on the words and deeds of Jesus led St. Augustine at the beginning of the 5th century to theorize that people have been born guilty – at enmity with God. Augustine thought that since children were condemned even before any personal sin on their parts, they must be born in sin. And that must be, Augustine reasoned, because they had inherited sin from their forebears and ultimately from the first human beings, Adam and Eve. Because of that “original sin,” God is justly angry with humans.

Now, as I said, the ancients believed that sacrifice was necessary to placate an angry God like that. So, in the Roman world, where sacrifice was understood in the terms I’ve just explained, Jesus’ death eventually became to be seen as a sacrifice whose primary purpose was to secure God’s approval of the Roman state. In this way, the “Mass” was transformed from a memorial meal to a re-enactment of Jesus’ sacrificial death. It was moved from a table with friends gathered around sharing food, to a “sacrifice” performed at an “altar” by a priest with his back turned to the people who watched the show from afar.

This Mass differed very little from what Romans were used to before Christianity became the state’s official religion in 381. In fact, it is entirely possible that ordinary people saw no difference between the “Mass” and the religious ritual they had been accustomed to when Jupiter or Mithra were worshipped as the official Gods of Rome. In other words, Christianity was transformed by the Roman Empire rather the empire being transformed by Christianity. There was a “theogony,” a battle of the Gods, between Jupiter and the Bible’s Yahweh; and Jupiter won. We’ve been worshipping him ever since.

How different all this is from what happens to Jesus at the baptism which today’s liturgy of the word celebrates! (And that brings me to my point about meaning in our seemingly wasted lives.) In today’s gospel, there is nothing suggesting “original sin.” Nor is Jesus presented as the incarnation of a God who needs to be mollified by sacrifice. Rather, Jesus comes as a disciple of John. (Scripture scholars tell us that John’s words about his inferiority before Jesus were inventions of the early church in a Jewish context where many still believed that John rather than Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.)

So at the age of 30 or so, this young peasant from Nazareth presents himself for a ritual washing at the prophet’s hands in the legendary Jordan River. In Israel’s idealized past, that river had been crossed by slaves escaped from Egypt who on the river’s opposite shore found the “Promised Land” that became their national home. Eventually that crossing came to be understood as transforming a motley horde of renegade slaves into a unified nation of free people at the service of the God who had liberated them from demeaning servitude.

John’s practice of baptism in the Jordan (far from the corruption of the priests’ Temple and its endless sacrifices) summoned his Jewish contemporaries to reclaim their ancient identity that had been lost by the priests and scribes who had sold out to Roman re-enslavement of a once proud and liberated people.

John’s was a revivalist movement of Jewish reform. Those presenting themselves for baptism were expressing a desire to return to their religious roots and to alter their lives in a profound way.

Evidently, that’s why Jesus came to be baptized too. This country boy who (according to Luke’s “infancy narratives”) had begun his life with such promise is now about 30 years old. Perhaps in view of his parents’ expectations of him, his life so far seemed wasted. Perhaps he had resolved to finally make a difference. In any case, by approaching John in the Jordan’s waters, he expresses an intense need for change in his life. He wants to be John’s follower.

So John performs his baptismal ritual. And the miraculous happens. An epiphany occurs for Jesus. He hears a voice. It informs him that he is a child of God. Immediately he sets out on a vision quest to discover what those words might mean. Forty days of prayer and fasting bring on the visions – of angels and devils, of temptations, dangers and possibilities.

In the light of his desert experience, Jesus chooses not only to follow John as the leader of a reform movement. He chooses as well to follow Moses as the liberator of an enslaved people. He has truly crossed the Jordan. So he brings his message to the captive poor. Like him, they too are children of God — God’s specially chosen people. God’s kingdom belongs to them, he says, not to their rich oppressors. The poor must not allow themselves to be misled by the stultifying and domesticating doctrines of the priests and scribes. That was the thrust of Jesus’ teaching.

Coherent acts follow Jesus’ words. He discovers wondrous healing powers within himself. By touch, by faith, by his friendship, he cures stinking lepers, dirty beggars, street walkers who have lost their self-respect, the deaf, the dumb, the blind and lame. Jesus eats food with the social outcasts and street people of his day, sharing nourishment the way God does – without cost or expectation of reciprocation. Jesus finds himself explaining the mysterious, transcendent and ineffable in unforgettable stories that capture the imaginations of simple people hungry for the spiritual sustenance that he offers – that he embodies. No wonder his early followers tried to imitate Jesus by choosing John’s baptism as a sign of membership in their community and by following the Master’s example of sharing food the way God does in their re-enactment of the Lord’s Supper.

That was the understanding of baptism and Lord’s Supper that the first generations of Christians embraced. But it didn’t last long. Within a few generations (and especially after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire at the end of the 4th century) the superstitions I referenced earlier had replaced the understanding and practice of Jesus and the Baptist. Soon baptism became an instrument for saving babies from original sin and hell. Soon the Lord’s Supper became the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” differing very little in ritual and spirit from offerings to Jupiter and Mithra.

Today’s liturgy of the word calls us beyond all of that. It summons us to follow Jesus who shows us the way to truly change our lives. Change comes by leaving behind the superstitious faith that supports empires past and present. Transformation comes when we share our food with each other and with the poor. It happens by committing ourselves to the “other world” represented by God’s Kingdom that has room for everyone, not just for the 1% served by our own churches, priests, scribes and their superstitious rituals.

Today’s liturgy of the word summons us to the banks of the Jordan to stand with Jesus and to hear God’s voice calling us from what has been so far wasted in our lives. Like Jesus, we are daughters and sons of God. We are beloved by the God of Love. Jesus’ example reminds us that It’s not too late to change our commitments and way of life.

After all (if we take our tradition literally) Jesus redeemed the insignificance of his own life in a single meaningful year – or maybe it was three.