Sunday, January 11, 2015

Crossing the Border

   The Baptism of the Lord   
I’m always afraid
that I’m going to slip up when reading that gospel passage
and say:  “Jesus was baptized by Jordan in the john…”

Near the end of October,
I went for a short hike about 30-35 miles northeast of here,
this side of Mooers Forks.
The place is called The Gulf, and for good reason:
it’s a vertically walled chasm, ¾ of a mile wide, 2 miles long,
with a maximum depth of a 1,000 feet—
all carved out of the sandstone bedrock
when the last ice age melted off about 12,000 years ago.
Standing at the rim, looking down into the dark waters far below,
it’s quite an imposing sight.
But The Gulf isn’t only geologically interesting;
this chasm actually cuts right across the US/Canadian border.
Just past the last red DEC trail marker
there’s a white concrete international border monument—
no fences nor flags, no guards nor customs post.
While I hadn’t seen another soul all along my hike,
I just couldn’t shake the feeling that somebody must be watching me.
I also couldn’t bring myself to step past that monument,
and turned back on the trail a little ways
before I was comfortable enough to sit down and eat my lunch.

The Jordan River is not nearly as impressive a waterway as The Gulf.
When I saw it for myself on pilgrimage a number of years ago,
it looked an awful lot like a shallow drainage ditch—
not at all like I’d pictured it!
What makes the Jordan significant, though,
is that it’s a border, a boundary:
this river marks the edge of the Promised Land.
The Jordan was the final line to cross
after the Israelites escaped Egypt
and wandered through the Sinai desert.
When they’d made it to the other side of the Jordan,
they officially passed from slavery to freedom,
from exile to their God-given homeland.

While there are certainly far more scenic
and impressive bodies of water in the Holy Land,
I think we can see why this is the one
in which Jesus chose to be baptized by John.

Today’s feast, you see, is about crossing boundaries.

It was not a receding glacier but original sin
which carved a deep gulf between God and the human race.
Previously, we’d enjoyed an unparalleled friendship with God—
we creatures walking freely with our Creator in Paradise.
But sin, by definition, breaks that bond of intimate communion—
cutting us off, putting up a barrier—
a painful divide of our own construction.

“My thoughts are not your thoughts,” says the Lord,
“nor are your ways my ways.”
God and his ways are so far above and beyond us—
not in a measurable distance, but in glory and majesty,
in mystery and might, in purity and holiness.
God is God, and man is sinful.
However could the two meet again?

God—it’s been revealed to us—is love.
And love, we know, is blind—perfect love so blind, in fact,
that it cannot see differences and distinctions;
true love doesn’t recognize any otherness.  (cf. G. Feuerstein)
And so this God who is Love
tears open the heavens and crosses the border—
not only coming to us, but becoming one of us;
God’s beloved Son was born of Mary;
the Word became flesh, and dwells among us.

Such is God’s love, and it creates a nearness
of which man could have never conceived, leave alone achieved.
From the depths of our sin to the heights of God’s holiness,
his descent—in Bethlehem, in the Jordan, into the grave—
draws us upward.
The baptismal font is most traditionally located
near the church door:
it is a threshold, a point of entry.
As we are visibly plunged into the sacred waters,
we are invisibly immersed in a saving mystery:
in Christ Jesus, God has shared with us
our human life and destiny,
that we might then share in his—both eternal and divine.

This was once also powerfully symbolized in the altar rail,
which one used to find in every Catholic Church.
Kneeling to receive Holy Communion at this symbolic barrier,
representing the border between earth and heaven
in a most tangible, visceral way,
we could experience God reaching across the boundary 
in the Eucharist.

Since December 25th,
we’ve gazed with wonder on the babe lying in the manger—
so small, so fragile,
having so completely taken on our poverty and weakness
that he can be cradled in our hands.
Coming to the end of the Christmas season,
we behold him now a man
at the beginning of his public ministry.
And yet, how wondrously, in the Sacrament of the Altar,
we can hold him still.

Almighty God, the Maker and Ruler and Judge of all things,
has cut across the gulf—and is never going back.
Not only on this solemn feast,
but whenever we dip our fingers in holy water at the church door,
and every time we approach the altar at Communion,
let us recall with great gratitude and awe:
“We can cross the border
only because God crossed it to come to us.”  (Romano Guardini)

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