In our Gospel last week we stood at the banks of the Jordan River and witnessed Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Today we hear John announce to all that the Spirit of God rests upon Jesus who is described as the Lamb of God and the Light of the World. John goes on to say that Jesus is not an angel, a prophet, nor a magician; rather, He is the incarnate Son of the Most High God. John reminds us that as the “Lamb of God” Jesus has a specific mission. His role is to teach and preach, and most importantly, it is to heal, and that healing can only occur through sacrificial service – specifically through the sacrifice of His own blood.
We are just one month past the celebration of the birth of Jesus and today our Gospel reminds us of the purpose of His mission.
Five hundred years ago a beautiful painting was completed by the Italian artist Lorenzo Lotto entitled the Nativity of Christ. Lotto presents the typical stable scene, yet, his spiritual insight focuses on one specific artistic touch: he places on the wall behind a kneeling St. Joseph the image of a crucifix with the body of Christ emanating a beautiful glowing light that spills out onto the wood of the cross and the stable itself.
To my knowledge, Lotto’s innovation was the first time such an insight had been seen in Western art, but its originality is emphasized by the fact that your eye naturally moves from the crucifix, through the eyes of Joseph and Mary, and then down to the open arms of Jesus. Here as an infant, on the wood of the manger, He freely opened His arms to Mary and Joseph; and as an adult carpenter, He freely laid Himself down upon the wood of the Cross, to be sacrificed in an open embrace of love for all.
The challenge of this Gospel is that Christ offers us, as His disciples, the model of sacrificial service. No matter who you are, or what your age or station in life, you can perform sacrificial service to those around you. But it must be offered in the same redemptive spirit that Christ offered His service: with spiritual love and compassion for the souls of those in need. By virtue of our own Baptism we are all called to serve others as Christ has served us. You may be a mother or father caring for children or elderly parents – this care, if offered in the spirit of Christ – is sacrificial service. You may be a sacred artist, laboring quietly and prayerfully to create beautiful images that will assist yourself and others in prayer. This creative labor is sacrificial service.
You may be a child or teenager that courageously doesn’t participate in the bullying of another and comforts the one injured – if offered in the spirit of Christ – this is sacrificial service. You may be an adult – sick or aching from the pain of years of courageous work for your family or on behalf of the Church’s needs, such as supporting the pro-life movement or other social and moral justice issues. You see, if in prayer – you offer up your pain and efforts for souls in need – this is Christ-like, redemptive, sacrificial service. So as we offer sacrificial service on behalf of others, we turn our mind to God and place ourselves in His presence. This presence is a moment of prayer for us.
Allow me to make a recommendation: when we offer sacrificial service we should say the first verse of Psalm 70, which says, “God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me.” By saying this prayer, awareness of our Baptismal discipleship takes root. For it is in that short verse that we successfully unite ourselves to Jesus in the Jordan River, and like Him, receive grace from the Father to continue our mission, even if it ends up on Calvary.
As we travel through the dark days of winter, let us not forget that the Light of Christ is always present to us, and that Jesus’ arms will always remain open to patiently help us as we serve others.
God come to our assistance. Lord, make haste to help us.
***The above homily will be delivered by me at St. Romuald Chapel at 10 AM, and Noon at St. Francis of Assisi Church, South Kingstown, Rhode Island, USA on Sunday January 19, 2014. Copyright © 2011- 2014 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Notes on the Painting: Lorenzo Lotto’s Nativity of Christ was completed in 1523. It is painted in oil on wood, and is presently in The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.