Some Christians are celebrating the Baptism of the Lord today, on the octave of the Epiphany. The feast brings to mind a favorite story of mine. (If you know me and have heard this a hundred times, you’ll just have to bear with me.)
On Christmas Eve, 1968, [John McCaffery] drove his live-in truck (complete with wood stove) to San Francisco to deliver a handmade gift to a woman friend…. When he arrived at [the Holy Order of MANS, where she was living] McCaffery was told his friend was not yet home and asked if he would like to wait for her inside…. When his friend returned, he gave her the gift and accepted her invitation to meet [Father Paul Blighton] in his second floor office. As he was walking up the stairs, McCaffery later recounted, he began to experience a mounting euphoric feeling that left him “barely able to breathe” by the time he reached the second-floor landing. His friend then introduced him to her teacher, whereupon McCaffery sat down and began to sob uncontrollably. After pulling himself together, the embarassed young man made an offhand remark about having read the Bible and having found Jesus to be a “great guy.” Without warning, and with complete disregard for social niceties, Blighton, who had been silent up to this point, thundered, “I don’t give a DAMN if he was a great guy – does it WORK?” McCaffery, a man not given to displays of emotional vulnerability, again collapsed into tears. (from Phillip Charles Lucas, The Odyssey of a New Religion: The Holy Order of MANS from New Age to Orthodoxy, pp. 69-70)
McCaffery went on to be ordained, and is currently serving as an Orthodox priest in East Syracuse, New York.
In the gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus, the heavens open, the Spirit descends, and a radical new ministry begins. In fact, some Christians (Shakers, anthroposophists, etc) have held that the baptism, rather than the birth, was the moment of the divine incarnation in Jesus. Regardless, something definitely “worked.”
We often find ourselves standing as John the Baptist welcoming Jesus into the waters of the Jordan, or Father Paul welcoming John McCaffery into his office. We may not know the potential of the person who stands before us or how God’s activity will alter this life. Nonetheless, we are called upon to open the gateway for the transformative power of the Spirit to flow, to wash over the person, infusing them with grace, enabling them to know the reality of their being as a son or daughter of God, working in them in ways beyond any expectation or control.
As we celebrate this feast, can we see the Spirit descending? Can we hear God’s voice calling forth a new identity, a new mission in our lives, and in those we serve?