Matthew 3:13-17, Baptism of our Lord
“I need to be baptized by you and yet you are coming to me?” That’s how I imagine John to have said that. It’s highly unlikely he said it that way, though, with the personal pronouns in italics. But the point is John did not expect Jesus, the Messiah of all people, to descend to the river Jordan and go down to the back of the line of sinners. John knew that baptizing the Messiah was not his place. He also knew well that this queue of sinners wasn’t a Messiah’s place either. “There’s something misplaced here,” John must have thought. “A reversal that’s short of scandalous.” So when he said, “I need to be baptized by you and yet you are coming to me?” his pronouns were in the right places. John knew what was his place and what wasn’t. We say it better in Tagalog: alam ni Juan kung saan siya lulugar.
Even if it hasn’t happened to us, you and I are familiar with the situation where we or someone loses the sense of place,‘yun bang nakakalimutan na natin kung saan tayo lulugar. This usually happens when we are taken from a place of non-privilege and placed in a situation of privilege. Raised to such a place, we’re given unbelievable access to private spaces, both physical and personal. We are given access to sensitive information, access to money, access to property, etc. And then, sadly, it gets to our head. Then, we lose our place. Nakakalimutan natin kung saan tayo lulugar.
Classic examples of this are familiar to us. There are no specific faces to these examples, but we know and have seen them happen. Like a boy starts out as a sacristan, then becomes head of the altar boys, then sacristan-mayor many years thereafter. Then… he loses his place. Whereupon he conducts himself as if he knows better than the priests who privileged him to be sacristan-mayor. Or like a faithful driver or bodyguard of many years who has risen to army general as his boss becomes president. Then… he loses his place. He starts using his power to “liquidate” detractors of his master. Or like a group of parishioners who volunteer to help run a baby parish, outlaying their own resources, efforts, connections. Then… they lose their place. They now have control over who gets to see the parish priest and who doesn’t, whose donation can be accepted and whose shouldn’t, which surnames should appear on the benefactors’ wall, etc.
I can go on, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the situation. It usually happens when someone is raised to a privileged place and granted access, then the person gets lost. Nalilimutan na niya kung saan siya galing at saan siya lulugar. Italicized pronouns are telltale signs of this: I, me, my, mine. Then they turn into phrases: through me, with me, because of me, should be me. And the saddest thing about it is that it all started out from such spirit of service, gentle kindness, generosity without any hooks, and true selflessness. In other words, it all started from a place of descent. Now, however, it’s all “disordered affections,” to use Ignatius’ words. Ad majorem Dei gloriam is really ad majorem mei gloriam. Mei in italics, please.
Sisters and brothers, we forget our rightful place when we lose our sense of gravity. We lose our sense of gravity when we start believing that the natural way for us to go is up, and higher, in privilege and access; when the natural way to go is really down and lower, in greater service, in more humility. Jesus never lost gravity, in all his privilege and access as Son of the God Most High. Rather, he always descended. He began his ministry by descending to the level of sinners chest-high in sin. He descended to the level of people’s life-stories and told parables off of them. He descended to the impure, never once vaunting himself pure, though he was. He descended to the realm of illnesses, demonic possessions, gender separation, and declared that “the Kingdom of God is here.” He just kept doing and doing good things selflessly, “not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the streets,” never self-referencing, never lording himself over his friends, never italicizing his personal pronouns. “A bruised reed he did not break, a smoldering wick, he did not quench.” No suffocation, no throttling, no emotional blackmail. Even as Messiah of God, Jesus knew his place. From the beginning of his ministry in the Jordan river to his last meal in the upper room, Jesus, Messiah that he was, was servant. That was his place, the place he always believed he should be, a place he loved being in: the place of descent.
No wonder the heavens above opened up that day with the Father saying, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.” God was so proud of him! And that should be no surprise to us because we know what that feels, don’t we, sisters and brothers? People we privilege and grant access into our lives endear themselves to us when they remember their place in our lives. All the more we want to make them part of us. They become such joy. But the opposite is also true. When someone loses gravity, our heavens darken and close and become silent.
“I need to be baptized by you and yet you are coming to me?” “Allow it now,” Jesus tells John. “For thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” The Messiah always knew his place as God’s Son. His personal pronouns were always rightly placed, modestly subdued. They never sounded like they were in wearisome, attention-seeking italics.
Sisters and brothers, as we move back to ordinary time, if we sense that our egos have led us astray after being granted privilege and access by people who love us, it would be worthwhile to do some descending again for a change, to do some ego-offloading, to wean ourselves away from our italicized personal pronouns, to reset our sense of gravity… by going back down to the river Jordan and fall in line.
*Image from a mosaic from the Basilica di San Marco