A friend of ours, our former Yoga teacher, was back in town over the holidays, and over lunch as we caught up on our lives, she recommended a book to me: Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. It’s written by Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has served in the LA projects for over 30 years. He works with gang members, helping them get off the street and leading productive lives. It’s a book full of powerful stories of redemption, forgiveness, resilience, and suffering. For most of the men and women in these neighborhoods, gangs provide the only family and community they have ever known.
Fr. Boyle tells many remarkable stories that might bring tears to your eyes—that’s what happened to me. There are stories of lives destroyed, of deaths, too many deaths, and of the lives of those young men and boys (and occasionally women) who died. There are stories of great suffering and evil, of families broken apart by drugs, domestic violence, and gangbanging.
Through it all, there are the people we meet, seen through the loving and compassionate eyes of Fr. Boyle. One story he tells is that of Cesar, whom he met when he was a little boy, in the aftermath of the 1987 earthquake. Decades later, Fr. Boyle got a call from Cesar. He had just been released after 4 yrs in prison, and needed help. He wanted out of the barrio, out of the gang, but he had no clothes. His old girlfriend had burned them all in a fit of anger. So Fr. Boyle took him shopping which led to a couple of incidents that underscored both Cesar’s menacing appearance and his desire for a new life.
Late that night, Fr. Boyle got a call from Cesar. Well, I’ll just read you the passage:
““I gotta ask you a question. You know how I’ve always seen you as my father—ever since I was a little kid? Well, I hafta ask you a question.” Now Cesar pauses, and the gravity of it all makes his voice waver and crumble, “Have I . . . been . . . your son?” “Oh, hell, yeah,” I say. “Whew,” Cesar exhales, “I thought so.” Now his voice becomes enmeshed in a cadence of gentle sobbing. “Then . . . I will be . . . your son. And you . . . will be my father. And nothing will separate us, right?” “That’s right.”
In this early morning call Cesar did not discover that he has a father. He discovered that he is a son worth having. The voice broke through the clouds of his terror and the crippling mess of his own history, and he felt himself beloved. God, wonderfully pleased in him, is where God wanted Cesar to reside.”
Fr. Boyle was alluding to the story of Jesus’ baptism that is today’s gospel reading. The story of Jesus’ baptism, which is the focus of our attention each year on the Sunday after the feast of the Epiphany, is an opportunity to re-examine the meaning of baptism. Mark’s version of this story is especially rich in detail and invites us to explore what he thinks the significance of Jesus’ baptism was and to connect that meaning with our own lives.
Baptism is a rite of initiation, it brings us into the community of faith, the body of Christ, and as such, it has a liminal, or boundary quality. That, too, is downplayed in current practice, but in the early church, the dying and rising with Christ was symbolized by the baptizand entering the baptismal water nude, and coming out to be dressed in a new white robe. Stripped of all status, power, and identity, baptism washed away the past, not just one’s sins, but all of existence, and offered a new identity.
Mark symbolizes that transition between old and new by setting the baptism in its context of the wilderness, on the edge of civilization. John is preaching out in the wilderness because his message demands repentance, change of life, that can only take place when one is uprooted from ordinary patterns and structures.
Mark’s depiction of Jesus’ baptism is dramatic and puzzling. The drama, though, surrounds Jesus, who seems to be a passive player as the action swirls around him. He doesn’t speak or in any way assent to his baptism. Instead we see him receiving John’s baptism and coming out of the water, when Mark writes, “The heavens were torn open and a voice came saying, “you are my son, the beloved. With you I am well-pleased.”
Both of these are of great significance. The word translated as “torn” appears only one other time in the Gospel of Mark, at the moment of Jesus’ death, when the curtain of the temple is torn in two. There’s more symmetry in these two scenes as well, for it is the centurion who says, upon seeing Jesus die, that “Truly this man was the Son of God.” This confession is foreshadowed by the voice from heaven here in chapter 1, who speaks not to the crowd, nor to John the baptizer, but to Jesus. Think about that framework for the Gospel—from beginning to end, we the reader know that Jesus is the Son of God, but within that framework as well as the sense that something new has broken in on the old order—the heavens have been torn apart and the curtain of the temple torn from top to bottom. The old world is being remade into something new by the coming of Jesus Christ.
Jesus comes out of the water and immediately, a voice from heaven comes to tell him, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that little detail. It’s incredibly important and raises all kinds of questions, but let’s just stick with the most obvious one. We don’t know, Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus was thinking before this event, what he knew about himself. All we know is what Mark tells us, that he hears while coming out of the water, that he is God’s son, the beloved. We might wonder what it would be like to hear such words, what an affirmation, a blessing.
We can see the power of that blessing in the story with which I began today. A man who grew up almost alone, whose only recourse was the gang life of the LA projects; a man who was in and out of prison for decades, is welcomed and embraced as a son. If you saw him on the street, you would walk the other way, or walk very fast. Tattooed, with muscles sculpted thanks to weightlifting in prison weight rooms, when he called Fr. Boyle in the middle of the night for affirmation of their relationship, for human connection that might help him into a new, better life, Fr. Boyle didn’t hesitate for a second.
We don’t know what Jesus thought when he heard those words from heaven. In Mark’s gospel, this is the moment when he learns who he is, but it’s an identity that will remain hidden from most everyone else, including Jesus’ disciples until the very end of the gospel.
You are my Son, the Beloved. Or, let’s put it another way, “You are my Child, my Beloved.” Those words of affirmation, of love, of identity, are words meant not only for Jesus, but for each of us. It is an identity that is affirmed and strengthened in our baptism, but as human beings, created in God’s image, it is an identity that precedes our baptism, an identity that unites all humankind in shared relationship with God.
It’s an identity that is so often lost or erased by the divisions that separate—divisions of race, gender or sexuality, class, place of birth or ethnicity, national origin. We are taught by our culture, by media and marketing, by our political leaders that some people are better than others, that some marks of identity make us better than others. We are taught, or led to believe, that we don’t have value, that we aren’t worth being loved or respected unless we are certain kind of person.
While many of us, most of us perhaps, have been surrounded by love and affirmation, there are others who right now, or perhaps throughout their lives have never heard those words of love. And so, as I end this sermon, I invite you to turn to your neighbor, and if the two of you are comfortable with it, take your thumb and mark your neighbor’s forehead with the sign of the cross, (like I do at every baptism); but if you’re not comfortable that’s ok. But you do have to say to someone today, you have to hear these words, “You are God’s beloved child.” Thanks be to God.