If I held up in one hand the Eucharistic body of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and in the other a thin wafer of bread that cost less than a penny to purchase, do you think you could tell the difference between them?
If standing up in front of this congregation next to me right now was Jesus himself and then on the other side another middle eastern man from the same era wearing similar clothing, do you think you could distinguish between divinity and humanity?
And if a group of people joined me here, some of whom had been baptized and some who had not, do you think you could tell the difference between them?
Today, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus himself. Baptism is something most if not all of us here have experienced as well. It is considered to be the gateway sacrament, the one that starts us down the path of faith, headed toward the other sacraments and toward, we hope, eternal life with God.
Sacraments are about transformations… even if once transformed, we can’t tell the difference between the before and the after.
A few days ago, I listened to Brooks Jensen, an artist and author, describe his recent trip to China and his observation about the differences between Western meals and Eastern meals. Here in our country, it’s not uncommon for foods to be cooked and presented in whole or in large quantities. It’s then up to the person who is going to eat the food to cut it up with a knife before eating it. In China, the cook cuts up all the food during the preparation process and then presents it in smaller, easier to consume pieces. Here we use forks and knives and in China they use chopsticks. Makes sense.
Brooks Jensen then went on to liken this to the way artists present their work to those who will “consume” it. You can show a big portfolio of your work and let people go through it themselves, divide it up as they see fit so they can take it all in. Or, you can give people your work to review in much smaller pieces, leading them along more slowly toward consumption of the full portfolio. This is an analogy that resonates with me. About art. About faith. And about life.
On Tuesday of this past week, there was an article in the Globe – perhaps you saw it – about how to change our behaviors. A behavioral scientist named BJ Fogg recently wrote a book about how to bring about positive changes in our lives. The key, he describes, is to create tiny habits that move us in the direction we want to go. He cites the example of a woman who wants to rid her life of clutter. She begins by taking one scrap of trash from her car every day and throwing it out. Once this becomes a new habit, you then build onto it.
Small pieces, tiny habits, baby steps.
For those of us who were baptized, we were transformed in the way that the sacraments transform us. But it’s not a magic trick… presto chango… it’s more like a starting point. We set out to advance ourselves toward God, to a point when we can all, as we stand on the very edge of life and stare into what comes after, know with some measure of confidence that we fulfilled the mission of our own baptism.
I for one would prefer a presto chango moment. One when I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit so very powerfully that I instantly become ready to do whatever he asks of me. I want to see signs. I want the big miracle. I want to be knocked off my horse by a bolt of lightning.
But that hasn’t occurred.
So instead of the big steak, maybe I should focus on the tiny bite-sized pieces that I have to pick up with chopsticks, one by one. Maybe I have to work my way forward, step by step, day by day, and take it in smaller chunks. Maybe I need to focus on the tiny habits…
… like remembering to say one Hail Mary as I drive to work so that eventually I will pray an entire rosary.
… like making sure I examine my day at the end and think about all the places I felt God during it so that I’ll more actively sense this as I live out each day.
… like forgiving a family member who frustrated me so maybe someday I actually can truly love my enemy.
… like being willing to go into Confession and actually naming my offenses so that I will have a better shot at eventually purging them from my life.
… like pausing when I feel most alone to acknowledge that I am always accompanied by a creator God who loves me.
… like accepting the fact that even though I may wish something would turn out differently… and that the big miracle might happen in just the way I wish it would… perhaps I would do better to surrender to God’s desires instead of my own.
Perhaps I should do these things. Perhaps you should too…
Small pieces, tiny habits, baby steps.
And when the time comes, when we stand at the very edge of life and stare into what comes after… let’s be recognized. Let’s be distinguished by the transformation that took place over the course of our entire lives. And let’s make sure that we will be known… by our baptism.