I used to describe my vocation to priesthood by saying that I chose to be a priest. After my senior year in college I chose to apply to study for priesthood for the Diocese of St. Petersburg. During my Seminary training I chose to read text books, write term papers and participate in the spiritual formation program the Seminary offered. I still remember waking up very early on a Saturday morning to make the long drive to the Cathedral for the Ordination ceremony.
While it is very true that I chose to be a priest, I have come to realize it is also true that priesthood chose me. Having engaged in presbyteral ministry for almost thirty-one years, I see now that there are particular aspects of ministry that intersect with aspects of my personality. It is often said that God “calls” us to our life’s vocation. It is also true that a particular vocation “calls out” to the particularity of our personal identity. This truth is demonstrated in today’s Gospel reading.
It was something of a scandal to the first generations of Jesus’ followers that Jesus accepted baptism from John at the Jordan River. John the Baptist had a large number of followers, and the Baptist’s movement continued for quite a while after John’s death. There is speculation today that a small, insular religion called the Mandaeans are the extant descendents of John the Baptist’s reform movement. John’s reform movement was popular, and was perceived by some as rivaling Jesus’ reform movement.
Additionally, John’s baptism was an act of repentance. The fact that Jesus chose to perform an act of repentance seems to contradict his disciples’ claim about his divinity. The fact that it was well-known that Jesus was baptized by John made Jesus look like John’s disciple rather than the “mightier one” (Mark 1:7), whom John proclaimed.
The potentially embarrassing and confusing event of Jesus’ baptism by John is mentioned by the Gospels because it was a milestone in Jesus’ life. It was not until after this event that he began his ministry. The significance of John’s baptism in Jesus’ life is explained in today’s Gospel reading. “On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’.” (Mark 1:10-11)
Jesus chose to accept a baptism of repentance from John, but in doing so it was revealed to him that repentance had chosen him. In his ministry Jesus called people to repentance, and taught that God would accept repentance from anyone – even outcasts and notorious sinners. At his baptism Jesus’ vocation was revealed publicly. He was identified as God’s chosen one. It was also revealed to him how he would fulfill that vocation: he would offer the world the possibility not only of repentance, but also of perfect forgiveness from God.
The revelation of Jesus’ life and vocation that occurred at his baptism gives us insight into our own lives. We live in a country, and at a time, in which we prize personal freedom. We value the ability to make free choice about our jobs, relationships, place of residence and so much more. At the same time, however, we fear the responsibility that is a necessary part of freedom.
All of us desire successful lives, fulfilling relationships and a satisfying spiritual life, but often we fear the limitations that these commitments might place on our future free choices. Such fears derive from a false understanding of freedom. Our freedom is no less particular and finite than we are (or than the universe is). Freedom is neither indeterminate nor infinite; freedom has a particular nature just as personality has a particular nature.
As a consequence, freedom is not gained by maintaining the greatest number of possible options. Freedom is gained in particularity, in making a choice, and fulfilling its attendant obligations. Freedom is both a matter of choosing and being chosen. The fears that people have today about committing to a job, a relationship, faith in God and the requirements of organized religion lead to decreased freedom because they lead to decreased particularity. Such fears are a denial of personal identity.
To be a husband, wife, parent, child, brother, sister, friend – or a disciple of Jesus – is not only a choice one makes (or accepts as random chance), it is a revelation of one’s personal identity. The particularity of our lives – the things that we choose and the things that choose us – are the very substance of who we are and the building blocks of true freedom.
Today, in this celebration of the Eucharist, we are called to absolute fidelity to God and one another. This isn’t a call to an idea, or a possibility; it is a call to a particular and finite Covenant relationship. The limitations we accept in faith define, and reveal, our true identity. Our personal freedom lies not only in the fact that we choose to respond to God, but also that we have been chosen by God. Just as Jesus was revealed as Savior at his baptism in the Jordan we are revealed as God’s chosen ones when we accept fully the particularity of our lives.