Last Sunday, I joyfully baptized five children here at Blessed Sacrament Parish. I say I baptized but in reality, it is Jesus who baptizes. As always, it was a wondrous occasion – even for that one little girl who flinched just as I was about to pour water on her head and so got a full dose of Holy Water up her nose!
As a part of the Baptismal rite, immediately after the baptism itself, the parents and Godparents clothe the newly baptized child with a white garment. This part of the rite includes a beautiful prayer: “You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.”
I thought about those words as I studied this week’s reading from the Book of Kings in the Old Testament. The act of clothing the newly baptized in a white garment confers a divine mandate in much the same way as did Elijah in throwing his cloak over Elisha. Throwing the cloak on Elisha meant that Elijah was passing over the mantle of authority and divine mandate upon him and calling Elisha to take on a new responsibility to be a prophet. By the virtue of Baptism in Christ, all of us who are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit receive the authority and divine mandate of priest, prophet and king to follow and serve Jesus as Elisha followed and served the prophet Elijah.
As such, we no longer look back. Elijah allowed his disciple time to say goodbye to his old way of life, and Elisha made his call permanent by turning his plow into firewood to cook the oxen he had been ploughing with. But Jesus tells his disciples: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” Jesus wants us to understand that his discipleship requires a firm decision for commitment and fidelity. Hands have been laid on the plough and we have no other obligation than to walk in the ways of Christ.
We heard in the Gospel that Jesus was “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51). Jesus knew what awaited him in Jerusalem – rejection, torture and death. The disciples didn’t know but likely sensed that Jesus was leading them into danger. The journey to Jerusalem was a journey that Jesus had to complete. The final destination of the journey was to open the gates of heaven for us. For Jesus, Jesus’ love for us made the destination worth the price of the trip, even if the price was his death.
A journey to Jerusalem is one that each of us must undertake in following Jesus. Unless Jesus returns tomorrow, we can’t get to heaven without first dying. It’s the only route. And so we pray that, like Jesus, we can set out upon our lives resolutely with the faith filled hope of our glorious destination, the destination we are created for.
Along the way, there is another pilgrimage we must undertake – the journey towards death to self. Like Elisha, we turn our back on our old way of life and burn our bridges in doing so. We accept the gentle yoke of Jesus Christ and follow his sacrificial way of life not because we understand the road but precisely because we do not.
There are other, less lethal but still perilous, journeys we must make on this earth, and most of them do not involve actual physical travel. I’m thinking for instance of the challenge of negotiating human relationships – another sort of dangerous passage for sure. Who among us does not bear the bruises and scars that testify to a poorly chosen word, an unworthy thought, or a dismissive gesture? These smaller journeys before the great departure are opportunities for deepening human relationships in a way that may well bring to earth something of heaven’s joy were we courageous enough to speak the truth. While avoidance is the easier way to meet the challenge and, sadly, the route more often taken, doesn’t Jesus this day encourage us to “take the road less traveled,” the road that, though difficult at times, will bring us nearer to heaven?
At this point in history, we as Catholics undertake a perilous journey that can be bruising and scarring to ourselves as well as those around us. Our path has always been to challenge the world, to call for social changes, and to surround those in crisis with love and services. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
You were initiated into the authority and divine mandate when Jesus claimed you by throwing his cloak over you in baptism. As his disciple, live resolutely determined to follow Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem, the road that all disciples of Christ must follow. We often wish to remain permanently in some comfort zones but you started on this journey when you were entrusted at baptism with the divine mandate to go and proclaim the kingdom of God. The destination is worth the price of the trip.