"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Theophany and vocation

For the benefit of the few readers who don't already know, I note that today's feast in the Roman calendar, the Baptism of the Lord, is really the same feast that the Orthodox celebrate as the Holy Theophany or "Epiphany." When I first learned of that correlation in college, I at once associated the idea of theophany with that of vocation and that of baptism with both. Apparently, that helped fool some progs into thinking I might be one of them. For back in the 1970s, Roman Catholics were still trying to wrap their minds around the idea that baptism was something more than the spiritual equivalent of mandatory neonatal therapy: the "washing away the stain of original sin" the Church did for babies lest they die and get stuck in limbo before we got round to doing right by them. Vatican II had quite explicitly recovered the richer, ancient understanding of the "baptismal vocation," of course; but the idea that people other than priests or vowed religious had vocations seemed, and in many quarters still seems, a rather newfangled idea among Catholics.

Still, it is no coincidence that the only place in the Gospels where all three persons of the Trinity are presented as manifesting themselves perceptibly and together is Jesus' ritual baptism by his cousin John. The occasion was the inauguration of Jesus' public ministry: the end of his time of preparation and the beginning of his actual mission. Just as it was the baptism he would undergo in his humiliating Passion that would give all baptism its power, so the humility he showed by letting his divine Person be baptized, when he himself did not need it, was the beginning of that passion. That the power of sacramental baptism ex opere operato, by which we are initiated into the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, is our ontic incorporation into the divine life, is manifest in the theophany of the Trinity at Jesus' own baptism. When baptized into Christ, each Christian becomes the Father's pure and beloved child, filled with the Holy Spirit to carry out in this world a mission special to them.

Many people have little or no idea what that mission is. That is partly because most of us who have not undergone a well-conducted RCIA grasp only dimly, at best and if ever, what baptism itself makes us into and calls us to. Whether our day-to-day environment is secular—as in most cases—or religious, the lingering effects of original sin seem a lot more real to cradle Catholics than our divinization; and so it seems even to converts once the initial glow wears off. It has long been so. Once the Roman world became nominally Christian, so that being baptized became the cultural norm, it was inevitable. Most Catholics even today were baptized as infants and therefore remember nothing of the event. For them, there's no there there. Consequently, and absent a kind of spiritual progress that is all too rare, being Catholic can seem more a burden than a blessing: either a set of cultural and psychic baggage one can't quite shake, or another compartment of life with its own ceaseless demands and challenges, ones that must somehow be balanced with all the others in all the other compartments. It does not occur to most Catholics that the most beautiful and important thing about each of them, as individuals, is a pure divine gift: their being re-fashioned, in baptism and on through to the grave, in the image of Christ. For they are each members of his Mystical Body, whose purpose is to bring her Head, God's only-begotten Son, into the world even as each is formed for life eternal. Most of us are much more concerned with measurable performance, especially in tasks the world sets us and approves. The minority who consistently succeed at all that are often among the least likely to understand what their most important task really is.

And so today, with full knowledge of my failures in love and work, I am grateful to God and hopeful for the future. God has allowed me to retain no illusions about my worthiness or success; but neither am I exempt for a moment from obeying his commandments and using my gifts to the full. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, each the same God as the others, do not exempt me because, calling me to become one of the "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4), the Trinity offers me the power to do those things. That power is the life of the Trinity itself, drawing me into itself, beyond this world but very much in it. My prayer today is that I never lose sight of that, and that I always act accordingly. That is my prayer for each of us.
blog comments powered by Disqus