When I was a young child, my mother was hospitalized with tuberculosis for 18 or 20 months. It’s been so long ago now that I can no longer remember exactly how young I was, but I’m guessing her hospitalization spanned the years when I was in the third and fourth grades. I do remember being able to see and visit her a couple of times a week, almost always from a distance because the disease was so contagious, but my brother and I went for most of nearly two years without her hugs and kisses. Being in a family that touched and caressed easily and frequently, there were plenty of hugs and kisses from other people who loved us, yet they didn’t begin to diminish the loss of her arms around us and the touch of her lips in our lives. It was a difficult time even though I did understand that she would get well after a while. Twenty months is an eternity when you’re only eight or nine years old.
I’m telling you this story because of something that happened several years later. Again, I don’t remember how exactly how old I was. It was probably sometime in early adolescence because I was old enough to be left at home alone. I took advantage of that solitude to dig through one of my mother’s bureau drawers. I don’t know if I was actually looking for something in particular or just indulging in that delightful pastime that my beloved great-grandmother called “plundering.” That was the word she used for snooping around. What I do remember vividly is finding a thick bundle of letters and cards tucked in the back corner of the lower left drawer of Mom’s dresser. It was mail she had received while she was in the hospital, and among the envelopes I found a letter from the woman who was the Christian education director in the parish I grew up in. Since you already know I had no scruples about my mother’s privacy, you probably won’t be surprised that I began to read it. The letter was about a conversation the woman had with me a few weeks before Christmas while my mother was in the tuberculosis sanitarium. She wanted my mother to know that I had come running up to her the Sunday before, bubbling over with the news that my mother was getting to come home for Christmas. “She’ll have to go back, of course,” I apparently explained, “but she’ll be home for Christmas!” She told my mother that “her beautiful little face was lit up like the sun.” Reading that letter had two profound effects on me. One was the awareness, and the shame that came with it, that I was indeed plundering around in someone else’s private stuff. The other was the experience of seeing me through someone else’s eyes, someone who saw my “beautiful little face … lit up like the sun.”
You know, there are so many things that can be said about the baptism of Jesus and the relevance it holds for our lives to this very day, and I surely must have said most of them many times over the years. But what seems to matter most this particular time around is not that his baptism marks the beginning of our Lord’s public life and ministry or the shifting of attention from the fiery and eloquent John the Baptizer to the One whose appearance he has been predicting and preparing for. What seems most relevant this day is the intimate moment as Jesus was coming up out of the water and the heavens were torn apart and a voice said to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We make much of the empowering that comes with receiving the Holy Spirit, but I wonder if we fully appreciate the power that comes with knowing we are loved by someone, loved by God.
There is so much in the world that can and does wound and diminish us. Sometimes it is a word or action that is maliciously intentional which may be unleashed either privately or publicly. The hurt and anger and shame that often come with such treatment are corrosive to our sense of who we are and the inherent value of our very existence. Other times, and I think perhaps this is how it happens most often, we suffer from a nagging sense of failure, but not about anything in particular. It’s not directly related to the people around us and the way they are treating us. It’s not a response to anything we’ve said or done or failed to say or do. I don’t know about you, but for me it’s a kind of deep loneliness that wells up inside me, a lonely fear that I am not lovely and lovable regardless of all evidence to the contrary. At times like that, you and I desperately need a voice that tells us we are indeed loved.
We don’t have a baptism today, but all this makes me wonder if we should start pausing for a few seconds after we baptize someone here; pause just long enough for God to gaze on the face of the newly baptized and whisper, “Oh my darling child, my cherished one. I am so delighted with you and I look forward to a lifetime of seeing your beautiful little face lit up like the sun.” The Jesuit Anthony de Mello once advised that we should take the time to “Behold God beholding you…and smiling.” It was a profound experience for me as a young teenager to catch a glimpse of myself through the eyes of another person. It is even more profound to imagine that the God of all creation looks on me…and you that way every day of our lives. What would it be like to look in the mirror every morning before we’ve washed away the fogginess of sleep and remind ourselves that God is looking at us that very moment, saying, “Oh my darling, my cherished one. I am so delighted with you. May your beautiful face find many reasons this day to be lit up like the sun.”