Mark 1:7-11 (The Baptism of Our Lord)
Imagine a young boy is holding up a picture he has just drawn with crayons, showing it to his father. Why does he do this? Though he may not say it out loud, the boy is asking, “dad, is this good, do you accept it?” With this simple gesture the boy is also asking his father deeper questions: am I good, do you accept me? We are all like this little boy because each of us yearns to know that we are good and that we are accepted by others. We just have different ways of seeking out the answer.
The way that we think, feel and act is greatly affected depending on whether or not we sense that we are loved and accepted. We all desire to know that others consider us good. When this need is met we are at peace and we come alive. When we experience uncertainty in this area, it can be devastating. We don’t need to look far to find examples. Is the case of a teenager succumbing to “peer pressure” and doing something they know to be wrong, like getting a tattoo they later regret, not just a misguided attempt to feel accepted? Is the man or woman who has a string of promiscuous relationships not at some level searching to feel loved? How many people go through life unhappy with themselves, thinking they are not good because of how much they weigh or how they look? Is the man working longs hours at the expense of spending time with his family not seeking the approval of his boss and coworkers?
Sometimes we think we need to earn acceptance and approval from God. The actor Bradley Cooper (who you may remember from such films as the Silver Linings Playbook) said in an interview, “Unfortunately, when someone asks me a favor, I can’t say no. Because of my upbringing - my Catholic guilt - if I don’t do it, it plagues me.” Catholic are famous for feeling guilty. Whether this is an accurate stereotype or whether guilt is always a bad thing is debatable. However, the idea of “Catholic-guilt” points to a way of thinking that we can fall into. Often we do things because we would feel bad if we didn't. Sometimes we think “God cannot love me or accept me until _______”. We fill in the blank with different things. God will not accept me until I overcome this sinful behaviour or I pray more or I stop having doubts about my faith or I become a good person. We can feel that God’s love and acceptance is conditional. We need to do something or be someone different before we can earn it.
Our lives change when we realize that we are beloved sons and daughters of God. The feast of the Baptism of our Lord, which we celebrate today, challenges us to reflect on our own baptism and what is means for our lives. At baptism, we are grafted onto Jesus. We become joined to Him and He freely gives to us what rightly belongs to Himself. Jesus is the Son of God. In Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven proclaims “you are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” In baptism, we become beloved sons and daughters of God. One of my favorite parts of the rite of baptism of children emphasizes this point before calling on those present to pray the Our Father:
Dearly beloved, these children have been reborn in baptism. They are now called children of God, for so indeed they are… In their name, in the spirit of adopted children, let us pray together in the words our Lord has given us.
There is nothing we can do to earn the status of God’s son or daughter. It is an unmerited gift from a God who love us unconditionally. I had one professor who repeated this phrase often: “Why does God love you? God loves you because He loves you.” God loves us because He loves us. We human creatures love someone on account of goodness we recognize in them: their kind personality or their sense of humour. God is not like this. When God loves us, He creates goodness in us.
God our Father accepts us as we are. As St. Augustine said, “a friend is someone who knows everything about you and still accepts you”. Jesus has called us His friends (John 15:15). If we could only appreciate this deep within ourselves, our constant and at times painful and self-destructive search for approval and acceptance from others would come to an end. Saying that we are accepted by God as we are isn’t an excuse not to become better. Just the opposite. It is only when we feel unconditionally loved and accepted that we can grow. Knowing that we are accepted allows us to blossom, growing to become the son or daughter God has created us to be. Our lives change when we realize we are unconditionally loved and accepted by God, our heavenly Father.
It requires an ongoing act of faith to recognize that we are the a beloved son or daughter of God. Perhaps at this moment you have no problem believing this. Soon, however, you will experience doubts and hear a nagging voice telling you, “you are worthless” or “you are a failure” or “how could you ever think God could love you after what you have done”. In Scripture, Satan is called the accuser. Satan will do everything to convince us that we are orphans, that God is not in fact our loving heavenly Father. We must fight Him. We often need to make an act of faith in the fact that God loves us unconditionally. Paul Tillich, the 19th c. philosopher and theologian explained that faith is the courage to accept that God accepts us inspite of our being unacceptable. We need to regularly renew our belief in the fact that God is a Father who loves and accepts us always.
Today let us hear God our Father telling each one of us personally the same words He said to Jesus in the gospel. You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. In you I am well pleased. We should have these words tattooed across our hearts.