Bob was only 13 when his father left the family. Being the second oldest of seven children, Bob felt he had to become the man of the home. Weeks later, he was also devastated when his basketball coach tried to molest him. The pain continued a year later when his father eventually started a second family, and when his family moved to Florida.
[Listen to Fr. Justin’s homily here.]
He didn’t realize it at the time, but the key word that described his experience was betrayal. He couldn’t trust anyone. He also didn’t realize that his trust in God was wounded.
But he made it through high school, then married a wonderful woman, had two children, and went on to become a successful doctor, professor, and therapist.
When his wife returned to work, however, the void and restlessness in his heart manifested. At a Bible study, he heard the call of Jesus to give his life fully to Him, but was afraid of getting hurt again. He also realized that he was afraid of giving his heart completely to his wife. Therapy revealed that he projected his wounds onto her, and neither of them met each other’s needs.
A breakthrough came during a retreat: He was touched by the honest sharing and vulnerability of the other men. At the regular men’s group which followed, he saw Jesus heal others, so the burden he felt of always having to provide for others was lifted.
On another retreat, he recognized he was still doubting God’s goodness. A friend helped him realize that his reading of occult books some time before needed to be purified in Confession. The next day at Mass he read as a lector, and recognized Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist like never before! His joy was restored! At 3:00 a.m., some friends woke him up to pray and sing! He was so full of joy that he was laughing and crying at the same time, and he hadn’t cried since his parents’ divorce.
Now he understood why he doubted God’s goodness. He had projected his relationship with his father onto God the Father: I can never please God, He’s never there for me, He’s a good father Who turns out bad. But now, Bob knew in his heart and felt that God loved him, and he no longer had to earn that love (Bob Schuchts, Be Healed, 11-23).
There are two fundamental identities we can have: either as children of God or as orphans. If we don’t feel loved by God, then we’ll believe no one’s taking care of us; we’ll always try to win people’s love by our appearance, grades, achievements, etc., and whenever these things are threatened, we’ll experience anxiety, anger, or emptiness.
But children of God have a profound sense of their goodness. One person once told me, “I feel so loved!” while another said, “I feel God’s delight in me.” For me, I feel so special; God has always rolled out the red carpet for me. You’re special, too! It’s just that I’m more special. That’s a joke, but in some ways, we should all feel that God loves us in the most perfect way.
Jesus’ Baptism, today’s Gospel, is about the revealing of Jesus as God the Father’s Son: “When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:16-17).
“The heavens” being “opened” obviously means revealing Jesus’ true identity. Remember, at this point, Jesus hadn’t done any public ministry, so people would not have known His full identity. God the Father’s “voice from heaven,” says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” These words echo the First Reading where God says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Is 42:1. Cf. Curtis Mitch & Edward Sri, The Gospel of Matthew in Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 70-71).
Let’s focus on the word ‘delight.’ The Father delights in His Son even before Jesus began His public ministry. The Father loves Jesus not because of what He does, but only because of their relationship (Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1, 23). Jesus knows He’s the Father’s only natural son—He knows He’s special. I asked you parents before: Why do you love your kids? Because they’re cute and talented? No. It’s because they’re your kids.
When we’re young, according to Bob, who’s now, Dr. Bob Schuchts, we perceive this delight from our parents when their faces light up, they’re happy to see us. We feel safely loved, we’re affirmed in our goodness. Now, we need to start examining our hearts: Do we remember seeing that delight in our parents when we entered a room? And do we delight when we see our kids? Does our delight change when they misbehave?
A Catholic counsellor talks about the roots of perfectionism stemming from kids’ not getting that delight from their parents. At an early moment of our lives, we perceive we’re not loved, so we don’t feel lovable, and so we try to get that love back by performing. Subconsciously we need to be perfect in grades because that’s when our parents delight in us; we need to get people to like us because that’s when they delight in us, we need to be the best and succeed… in order for people to love us. Catholics with perfectionism will often say, “I know God loves me, but… not when I sin.” What!? That’s not Catholic. Other times, when we don’t get that delight, we just give up and are depressed.
In St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus meets a rich man who wants to know what to do to inherit eternal life, and it says, “And Jesus looking upon him loved him” (9:21). Here’s an experiment: Look at someone you know, stare at them, think about loving them, because they’re related to you or because they’re a brother or sister in Christ or a member of the human family, and notice that you’ll start smiling. Because when we look at someone with delight, we smile! Try it with me: Stare at me… think about how much you love me… and this is where you’re supposed to be smiling. Try it with your kids… when they’re behaving. Now here’s the deal: Jesus always looks at us with love. He always delights in us.
What about when we sin and hurt God? He still loves us, because we’re His children. Three years ago, I taught you a phrase: Nothing you can do can change God’s love for you. It rhymes. When we sin, it’s still wrong, still hurts God, us, and others, but it doesn’t change His love for us. God’s face of love only changes in expression.
Please watch these short clips from The Passion of the Christ to see Jesus’ facial expressions. Notice Jesus’ delight, His big warm smile, as He begins the Last Supper with the Apostles. When He looks at His mother, He enjoys being with her! When He predicts St. Peter’s betrayal and calls out Judas’ betrayal, it is with disappointment, hurt, and concern, but still love. God’s love for us never changes. But what we do changes our love for Him.
God is concerned that we become saints, love like Jesus, and proclaim Him, but that’s not where His delight originates. We need to get the order right: I love like Jesus not to earn His love, rather, it’s because I’m loved that I want to love! Life is beautiful when we’re this secure.
We’re now in our last homily on Alpha as Culture, and the theme we’re considering is training. In order to run Alpha well, we need training in hospitality, listening, etc. And now I want to train you to recognize how special you are, to receive the Father’s love, with three ways:
1) Make honest prayers. A young man named Paul Kim went to a youth conference, and for the first time in his life, he made an honest prayer: “God, umm… I’m sorry, I do a lot of things, I’ve done a lot of things, hurt myself, other people; I’m addicted to a few things, I’m sorry. They’ve been talking about having a relationship with You, I don’t even know what that is, I’m kind of afraid of You, so if You could help me have a relationship with You, that’d be great. If You could help my family at home, my relationship with my dad isn’t so great, I’d appreciate that, in Jesus’ name, Amen” (Paul Kim, That Awkward Moment When God Changed My Life, Track 8, 1:06).
It wasn’t poetic. He was real with God, and open to God’s coming into his heart. Honest prayers give God permission to touch our hearts and emotions. We should think of Mass as a safe place to pray, a safe place for God to touch our hearts and emotions.
2) Imagine you’re at the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and you’re being baptized with Him. A part of Catholic spirituality is using our imagination to meditate on the Gospel passages, seeing, hearing, and smelling what’s going on. When we do this kind of prayer sincerely, it allows Jesus to love us in powerful ways.
There’s a short one-page handout in the bulletin today [Baptism with Jesus Insert] from Bob Schuchts that teaches us how to enter the scene of Jesus’ Baptism (Be Healed, 59). We start by picturing ourselves there, standing in the river, imagining what it feels like to go into the water, come up again, and hear the Father’s words. Look at Jesus’ face as He takes delight in you: the big eyes, big smile, warm voice, and touch.
The Bible teaches that it’s by Baptism that we become adopted sons and daughters of God (Cf. Rom 8:15,17; Gal 3:27; 4:5-7). Now, obviously God loves all people, which is why Jesus died for all. But, to be adopted children comes through Baptism. Why? Baptism is about washing away our sins and starting afresh; it’s a spiritual birth. And this spiritual birth must be a choice; God won’t force us to be His children. But, if we choose to, then that humility allows us to feel His delight. If ever anyone here or anyone you know wants to be baptized, please talk to our Director of Evangelization, Peter Lee, about it.
3) Finally, remember an experience of love we’ve received in the past. This is important especially if there are days when we’re discouraged, feel mad or unlovable. Remembering is a very important Christian and biblical concept. God’s already done something beautiful for us in the past, but that love is still real.
I once heard a beautiful story about an African American grandma who would hug her grandson so tightly that he’d say, “Ah! Grandma, that kind of hurts.” Years later, when she was dying and lying on a bed, she asked him, “Can you still feel me hugging you?” He said, “Yes.” That experience of love was so strong that the reality of her love persisted into the future when she could no longer express it with a hug. And her grandson could always go back to that hug whenever he missed her presence.
The same is true with every single gift God the Father has given us: When we’ve experienced His closeness in prayer, or the delight of our parents, or a coincidence that we know is actually God’s providential plan. Can you still feel it? Remember it now.
Today’s a beautiful day. Do your best to smile, and smile at others, because God’s smiling at you. We are God’s beloved children. I feel really special. I hope you do, too.