Back to the river
There is always some relief when the holidays end. Schedules return to normal, and we enjoy feeling like we have more space because there's less clutter to take in. Christmas trees have mostly been stripped bare, hauled to the curb, or carefully stored in basements or attics. Decorations have been taken down, and the constant stream of familiar carols has stopped. The world has successfully packed Christmas up and put it away until next year.
It's hard to avoid feeling a little sad or let down. Even most of what we experience in the Church has now shifted focus from the Christ-child and transitioned into Ordinary Time. And while it's nice to have the chance to catch our breath, it can also feel as though the story has passed us by -- as if the building anticipation of Advent and the joy of Christmas have fallen short somehow. The baby has been born. The angels and shepherds have come. The Magi have come and gone. Even the Holy Family has left Bethlehem. But we remain, standing where we are with the sense that there is nowhere for us to go.
The Gospel readings at Mass bring us forward. But they do so by bringing us back to where we were when Advent began, back to the edge of the River Jordan and the voice of John the Baptizer. In Advent, John tells us to repent and prepare ourselves for God's coming. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! ... The one who is coming after me is mightier than I." (See Matthew 3:1-12.)
Now John tells us who that child in the manger really is and why he has come into the world: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world ... The reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel. ... He is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. ... Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God." (See John 1:29-34.)
What follows in the Lectionary this Sunday -- John's arrest and the calling of the first disciples -- is no coincidence. Here, Jesus echoes the Baptizer's core message in Galilee: "From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'" He calls Simon and Andrew, James and John as the first of the Twelve, and the brief years of Christ's public ministry begin. (See Matthew 4: 12-23.)
Jesus calling, the convergence of his identity and mission, is revealed by the waters of baptism -- and so is ours. We are returned to the river's edge to encounter our own calling: our identity in Christ and the mission he entrusts to us. In the transition from Christmas to Ordinary Time, the Church encourages us to return to the river's edge and revisit the font of our baptism throughout our lives of faith.
When our next steps are unclear, when we lose sight of our mission, when we are confused about who (or whose) we are, we do well to return to the call we first received -- to our first encounters with Jesus. We may have simply been going about our own business when Jesus came to us. Or we might have followed his star for many miles in search of him. The locus of our calling -- wherever we first heard Christ's call and decided to answer it -- is an irrevocable place of God's grace for us. It is a place to which we can and should return often, if not physically, then spiritually, in a pilgrimage of prayer.
Discipleship is not a one-and-done encounter. It unfolds over the entire span of our lives. But the initial call to follow Christ, to leave everything else behind, is a well from which we can draw for the rest of our lives. Who we are and all we do flows from this river; its current sets our course. And the strength and clarity we need to move forward in trust can always be found on its banks.
- Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and provides freelance editorial services to numerous publishers and authors as the principal of One More Basket. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.