The Baptism of the Lord: Luke 1: 19:28
Last week I took a walk in the woods, and as I was walking past Cronemiller Lake a woman stopped and asked me, “did you see the eagle?” An eagle? No. Then she pointed to the other side of the lake, where an eagle was preening its feathers in a fir tree, a bald eagle, with its snowy white head and dark wings, big as life.
And I would have missed it. I was walking too fast, head down, distracted and preoccupied.
I think of the crèches in Italy, the nativity scenes, which are much more elaborate than ours, not just stables but whole villages, with houses and shops and streets so crowded with women doing the washing and children playing and shopkeepers selling their wares we don’t see Mary and Joseph at first. They’re off in a corner, two little angels hanging on wires above them.
The baby in a manger, almost covered with straw.
The Italians call these presipi, and what they represent is a profound insight into the nature of the Incarnation: that when God came into the world he came “hidden in activity,” as he is always hidden in activity.
The gospel today describes a moment when Christ isn’t hidden at all—he is revealed, he is glorious, he is the light made known to the nations—and John the Baptist sees him, he beholds him. This is part of the greatness of John the Baptist, his capacity to see. But even here John says, twice, that he “did not know him” until now, and in the passage right before this he tells the Levites and the Pharisees that “there is one among you do not recognize”—a seemingly ordinary man, a carpenter’s son, doing his work and living his life. Sweeping the floor. Weeding the garden. In Nazareth. In this ordinary little town. This is what the tradition calls the “Hidden Life” of the Jesus, the thirty years he spent before he entered into his public ministry.
And even when he does begin to preach and to teach, out in the open, Jesus is misunderstood and persecuted and finally crucified—his divinity entirely hidden in the death of his body. Think of everything else that was happening in Jerusalem and in the Holy Land and everywhere else, all the ordinary work being done, the babies being born, the children playing, while in that one dusty corner of the world a man was hanging on a cross, drawing his last breath.
A thousand children die of malaria every day in the world, every day, now, while we are drinking our lattes and doing our email.
Even after the Resurrection Jesus is hidden. He appears and then he vanishes. His closest friends don’t recognize him at first.
The Gospel of John is always symbolized by the eagle—the eagle is the icon of John the Evangelist—because it’s the grandest gospel, the surest. Yet John, too, continually points to the humanity of Our Lord. Jesus eats, he weeps, he walks by the lake, and the true meaning of who he is is never fully revealed, because it can’t be.
This is the great grace of our lives, that God is hidden in our own activity. And yet this is also our greatest challenge.
I’ve just finished reading the autobiography of the Carmelite sister Ruth Burrows, this powerful spiritual writer I often quote from. It’s the story of how she felt the call to the cloistered life when she was a girl but then experienced great tedium and distractedness and dryness once she entered, not just at first but throughout her life in the monastery even until now, into her eighties. The cloisters were cold. The landscape was drab. The sisters were often petty and vindictive. For years Burrows longed for a better place, a true Carmelite cloister, until one day she realized: no. This is it.
Here there was indeed nothing—no security, no glory, nothing to give satisfaction. I had vowed poverty and I had it. I had declared myself ready to depend on God alone and he had taken me at my word. This was religious life in the raw, so to speak, and this was the essence of Carmel. Oh, if I had entered what I happily dreamed of as a perfect Carmel, with its fine tradition, its cloisters, I would have sought security in those externals, assumed the image of the Carmelite and escaped from God’s working in me. There had been no mistake; he had not let me down; this was the set up I needed, where I would be open to him.
We keep forgetting that when God came into the world as an ordinary man he was calling us to be ordinary. Because God is hidden in the world we have to face the world, and the suffering in the world, and our own limitations. We don’t rise above. We enter in.
And this is what John the Baptist knows and what he most heroically represents, this radical surrender to what he glimpses now, along the river, but will never see again in this life, this greatness beyond him, this person so much more than he can ever be, this one whose sandals he is not worthy to tie. John isn’t seeking glory. He knows what we are told in Colossians, that we must die and be “hidden” ourselves “in Christ,” hidden in the one who is himself hidden and must be hidden. “Divine love meets us in this real world and nowhere else,” Burrows says in The Essence of Prayer:
in this moment; in this circumstance painful and humiliating though it may be; in this person, in the daily unexciting round of seeming trivialities which afford no measure of self-glorification. Divine love meets us here in our flawed, suffering, human condition, and nowhere else.
I’ve quoted this passage many times before, and now, after reading Burrows’s autobiography, I think I understand it a little better.
This week, when we encounter something painful or humiliating or unexciting, let us give thanks. This week, when we find ourselves longing for something perfect and “Holy” and above it all, and even more when we think we’ve found it, when we think we possess it, we’ve arrived, let us stop, let us think again.
For this is the great grace of our lives, and the great spiritual task: to see the Lord in the chaos and in the jumble. The baby in the manger. The man walking towards us. The eagle perched in the tree, and the tree, too, when the eagle flies away, and the dark water, and the gray skies–this, this reality, where Christ is so hidden he is everywhere revealed, all around us.