During his recent pilgrimage to Greece, Fr. Michael lost his friend Fr. Bob Sears, SJ. This homily tells the story of how surrendering to prayer helped reunite Fr. Bob with his fellow pilgrims.
Gospel – Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
The people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
After all the people had been baptized
and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,
heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him
in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased.”
Searching for Sears Transcript
Throughout the Christmas season here at Holy Family this beautiful banner has been displayed with two simple and profound Words “Be Loved”. Beloved. Be Loved. These words that are echoed in today’s Gospel as John the Baptist blesses and baptizes Jesus and the heavens are rent open and the word of the father is heard speaking, “You are my beloved. You are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased, my Son.”
We hear these words, this gospel from Luke today and certainly it tells us about the distinct unique quality of Jesus as the Christ the only begotten Son of God. But that’s only part of the meaning because as we celebrate the baptism of our Lord. It’s a reminder that every one of us here today have been baptized. And what does it mean to be baptized, except to know that we are God’s beloved. We are beloved of God.
If you think that’s an exaggeration recall, Jesus’ words at the Last Supper when he gathered his disciples together, and he spoke the words, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” The father spoke from the heavens and said, “You are my beloved,” and Jesus says at the Last Supper to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, and called me beloved, so have I loved you.” Jesus came into this world to reveal just who we are. Not only to reveal who he is, as God’s beloved Son, but to reveal who we are as God’s beloved.
That’s very difficult for us to live into that because there are so many voices in our world today, so many voices that would tear us down and negativity that would demean us. Demeaning voices. Voices of the demon that attack us from the inside and from the outside. That say you’re nothing, or you are what you own, You are what you wear. You are what your drive. You are where you live. You are your zip code. You are your academic degrees. You are your stock reports. That’s who you are.
We celebrate a different message today, don’t we? To stand in the truth that we are God’s beloved. To step into the power of our baptism is to be incorporated into this community of people who know who they are. People who strive not perfectly—we all make mistakes, we all fall down—but we strive day in and day out to treat one another as God’s beloved.
Our second reading today is from Paul’s letter to Titus. Titus is not exactly somebody that we know a lot about, but I had the opportunity to lead a pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Paul this past fall. We went over to Greece and we visited Athens and we visited Thesolonika where Paul wrote his letter to the Thessalonians and Philippi where he wrote his letter to the Philippians. And we visited Ephesus where he wrote his letter to the Ephesians and we had a little cruise and we went over to Crete.
Titus was one of Paul’s disciples and Paul appointed him as Bishop in Crete and there he evangelized the people and there he was martyred. There’s a church right in the center of the island that is dedicated to St. Titus and it holds his remains—his skull in a golden reliquary.
Myself and another Jesuit priest—Fr Bob Sears who co-led the pilgrimage with me—after the guide had given us an orientation, we were given some free time to be able to spend the time as we wanted and so Fr Bob and I found ourselves side-by-side sitting in this church dedicated to St. Titus, praying by his relic.
We prayed there for some time. We looked at our watches and saw that it was time to make our way back to the boat. Now, the tour guide had warned us. She said, “You can’t be late because the boat isn’t going to wait for us and you don’t want to be stranded here on the island of Crete. So Fr Bob and I are walking back and there’s are all kinds of street vendors there and they’re selling souvenirs and I picked up a souvenir and Fr Bob was with me and then I’m walking a little further and then I started thinking about some more people that would like to souvenirs that I just gotten and so I said to Fr Bob, “Could you…” and I started to say, “Could you wait for me?” But I just said, “Could you walk ahead and tell them that I’ll be along shortly.”
And so I ran back and I bought the additional souvenirs and then I ran up and got to the bus, but there was no Fr Bob. And I thought, “Well that was rather strange because he was there ahead of me.” Then it came time and everybody else was on the bus except there was no Fr Bob and then we started to get worried. The tour guide and I went out and I retraced my steps back to the souvenir shop, looked, no Fr Bob. Came back and at this point the tour guide is getting exceedingly worried, for fear that the boat is going to leave us.
So I got back on and I said to all the pilgrims, please start praying that we can find Fr Bob. And I said, I need six of the fastest runners to come with me and we’re going to fan out and we’re going to look everywhere we can. So six of the youngest members came together and they spread out and we went and I said, let’s meet back in 10 minutes. They fanned out, they came back in 10 minutes. No Fr Bob.
At this point they contacted the police, they said, “Have you seen a priest wandering around?” And the tour guide keeps looking at her watch and said, “I don’t know what we’re going to do. I don’t know what we’re going to do. I don’t know what we’re going to do.” Clearly she started to panic and I said, “Let’s go out for five more minutes. Keep praying.”
They went back to this fountain in the city not far from the church of St. Titus, matter of fact just kitty corner. And there, two of the runners found Fr Bob. And Fr Bob had realized that he was lost and he went back to a central place and he said, “They’re going to know that I’m lost and so let’s pray that we can connect in the same spot because I don’t have a clue as to how to get back to the bus.”
And what he prayed was a very simple prayer. He said, “Lord, I place myself totally and unconditionally in your hands. I’m your child. I’m your beloved. I Surrender everything to you. Amen.” He finished that prayer and looked up and there were the people from our group searching for him.
Fr Bob got back on the bus—and of course, we all erupted into cheers and wiped away our tears because of our fears—and then he explained how he had just prayed. Placing himself totally and unconditionally into God’s hands and then he explained that since he was a kid and I didn’t know this—and I’ve known Fr Bob for many years—that he always had a trouble with directions and was constantly getting lost throughout his life. I didn’t know that at the time.
But what he did was, place himself in God’s hands, trusting that God would take care of the situation one way or the other. I share that story with you brothers and sisters because all of us are going to make mistakes in our lives. All of us are going to do stupid things. We’re going to wander off. We’re going to get lost. We’re going to hurt each other. And in the midst of that we can tear ourselves down and we can say that somehow I’ve lost the blessing. I’m no longer beloved of God because I did a stupid thing. I committed a sin. I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have wandered off. I should have done… Should have done… Could have… Would have… Should have…
And in the midst of that we rip ourselves apart and the good news of the baptism is that are being God’s beloved does not depend on us. It’s God’s graciousness to us. It depends on God, not on us. We are an imperfect people. We are sinners and we’re going to continue to sin and we’re going to continue to hurt each other and we’re going to continue to make mistakes and we’re going to continue to do stupid things. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us.
That is so hard for us to remember because we love one another conditionally. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. You help me, I’ll help you. You love me, I love you.
But when that contract is broken within families, within marriages, within corporations, within communities of faith, we say I’m out of here. That’s the way we treat each other. That’s not the way God treats us. I know this is an image that you’ve heard probably a thousand times, but for me, it’s one of those go to seminal images that say it so clearly. Today it’s snowing and the skies are grey and the sun is hidden. Does that mean the sun is not shining?
We know that the sun is shining above the clouds. The clouds have hidden the sun and we can’t see the sun shining but the sun has not stopped shining. Those clouds are like our sins, those clouds are like our mistakes. They can hide the sense of God’s love but they can’t stop God from loving us. God loves us when we’re sinners. God loves us when we’re filled with grace. That’s the power of our baptism. That’s the truth of God saying to Jesus, “You are my beloved.” And Jesus is saying to us, “You are my beloved. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.”
That good news grounds our lives and when we believe it, as Fr Bob believed it on the island of Crete right outside the Church of St. Titus (whom we heard from today and our second reading)… When we believe that, what’s born of that is a tremendous peace. What’s born of that is the ability to be able to see past the faults and failings of those around us and just begin to see their goodness; to begin to see one another as God sees us: as beloved.
That’s the good news we celebrate. That’s the beginning of ordinary time. The Christmas season has ended. We’re entering now into ordinary time. What’s the task of ordinary time? To live in the truth of ourselves as God’s beloved and to treat one another as God’s beloved. If that isn’t good news, I don’t know what it is.