Bp. Mark J. Seitz. Baptism of the Lord – Migration Week Homily 2014
January 12, 2014. Cathedral of St. Patrick, El Paso
I have seen the place where Jesus was Baptized from a distance—across forbidding barbed wire fences and signs in various languages that give ominous warnings. Perhaps there are mines there. You see, the place where Jesus was Baptized by John is down near Jericho, not far from where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea. It is at the ‘frontera’, the border with the country of Jordan. Since it is a border between two occasionally warring countries, the actual place of this dramatic moment in the history of our salvation is not open on the Israeli side to the public.
Jesus, since he is the Son of God, surely saw what would become of this place where he chose to be Baptized–and as I think of it, I see an amazing appropriateness to his choice. Now, perhaps more than ever in this age of nationalism, borders have come to symbolize for us–not a meeting place of friends or a place of encounter, but a ‘no man’s land’, a place of conflict and alienation. Even among ‘friendly’ countries they are places we protect against ‘aliens’ with all our military might.
In this light how interesting is Jesus’ act of entering into the water of the Jordan. He is entering into a river that constitutes a border. Rivers have always been places of both life and of danger. It is striking to me how verdant and green even the driest desert becomes in those places where a river runs through. But, in a moment, a calm peaceful river can, with a little rain upstream, become a raging torrent. Many who have attempted to cross our border river, the Rio Grande, in places and times when the water is flowing, have drowned in its swift and unpredictable current. Even where there is little or no water our fences have forced them into treacherous mountain and desert areas where literally hundreds die every year, their corpses left to the buzzards and other desert animals.
When the people of Israel arrived after their 40 year journey to this same river at about this same place, it marked the border of their entrance into the Promised Land. On that occasion God intervened just as he had when they left the land of slavery in Egypt. Joshua used the staff of Moses to part the waters so the people could enter.
Jesus surely could have parted the waters with a word of command, but he chose instead to enter into them. He entered and was swallowed, ‘buried’ by the waters. For a moment it seemed as though he disappeared, lost his identity, ceased to be. In the earliest rites of Baptism, before there were churches and fonts, the one to be Baptized would enter the water on one side of the river, would be buried under the water three times confessing the Trinity, and then would emerge on the other side, a new person, a child of God. By passing through the water he or she received a new identity; they belonged to God’s holy kingdom.
Jesus was already Son of God, who by his Incarnation and birth had become one of us. By entering the water and participating in John’s Baptism of repentance it is not too much to say that Jesus was taking upon himself the experience of every migrant—and, after all, we are all migrants, passing through this life for a little while on our journey to our true home, which is heaven. We all have the experience of migrants losing our identity for a time as we pass through the raging rivers of loss and transition in our lives. Those who leave their homelands in desperation, fleeing violence or extreme poverty, live the experience more clearly while we, if we are lucky enough, can sometimes live in circumstances so relatively stable that we can make the bad mistake of thinking we have already arrived in our eternal home.
But Jesus entered the water because he wanted to enter in fully to the experience of those passing through all the borders of life. In Baptism he accepted this mission. By his Passion, Death and Resurrection he would fulfill it. By our Baptism we have joined him along his way. Like him we are united with all those who would be denied their human dignity because of the impermeable borders we have established between us and them.
There are other borders besides national ones. In our country we have a sad history of having created borders based on the color of one’s skin. We still have borders that all too often separate rich and poor, those who have opportunities and those who have none.
Perhaps the most shameful border of all is the one we have created between the child in the womb and the one out of the womb. So lacking in humanity and dignity are those children not-yet-born that we have decided we can brutally take their lives and call it our right.
Since Jesus, our Lord and Savior, has entered into the waters where human beings lose their identity how can we in the Church, who claim to be his disciples, fail to enter with Him? As Pope Francis has been reminding us so well, we, who call ourselves Catholic-Christians, disciples of the Lord, need to be wherever human beings are being turned into numbers and statistics–faceless creatures with no names. Wherever they are called “alien”, “illegal”, “blobs of tissue”, “unwanted”; we say no, this is “Mary”, “John”, “Marta”, “Jesús”! They are dear “children of God” and we love them!
We need to be in the prisons, in the nursing homes, in the shelters and detention centers. We need to be with the woman who is so alone she feels that killing her unborn child is her only option. And we certainly need to be with migrants, whose numbers, we are told have to a jaw-dropping 214 million in our world. We must, because we know Christ has! No human law can keep us from serving our suffering brothers and sisters! As we serve them we will continue to urge our legislators to mold just laws that respect the human dignity of those who find no other option but to leave their beloved homeland to seek a new life.
How can we not hear the Father’s voice speaking to those who pass through the treacherous waters and deserts of our border, saying, “This is my beloved son, my beloved daughter, care for them!”