Many of us struggle with highs and lows in our lives: When we’re high, we’re very high, but unfortunately unprepared for problems and sufferings that eventually come. If you’re the kind of person who gets surprised at suffering, such as when COVID-19 struck the world, this may apply to you. On the other hand, once we’re low, we’re distraught, forgetful that God’s still with us.
Part of the problem is that we let external forces influence us too much: We’re happy depending on how well people treat us. So, we’re up and down all the time. The point of today’s homily is to begin again with equilibrium, with balance.
If we look at today’s Gospel, we see four indications that life on earth will always be a mixture of blessings and challenges. We normally only see the consolations in this Gospel, but there are also challenges: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mk 1:9-11).
1) When the voice says to Jesus, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,’ this is consoling, because Jesus is affirmed in His identity as the Father’s Son, but this also indicates that Jesus is sent to sacrifice Himself. The term ‘beloved son’ is used in the Old Testament (Gen 22:2,12,16, LXX) to describe Isaac when Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his only son. But, whereas God will stop this sacrifice, He Himself will offer His only beloved Son for us.
So, there are times in life when we experience being loved by our Father, but this reminds us that we’re called to sacrifice ourselves out of love. If now is a time when you’re spiritually consoled, are you aware that part of life means that sacrifices are coming, and that’s part of being beloved children of God?
2) When it says that Jesus ‘was baptized,’ this is a positive event, because baptism is symbolic of new life, but baptism is also symbolic of death, death to a sinful way of life, symbolized by cleaning one’s body of dirt. Water gives life, but also drowns.
Anyone who’s baptized will always experience invitations to new life, but also challenges to change their moral lives in order to love more like Jesus. We need to try to wash away all sin in our lives.
3) We see the Trinity appear together for the first time: Jesus is there; God is in the voice from heaven and refers to His Son, thus making Him Father; and then the Holy Spirit is present ‘descending like a dove on Him.’ They appear together in the context of love! But what does the Spirit do right after Jesus’ baptism? “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan” (Mk 1:12-13). Jesus is sent on a mission to combat Satan, to be tested, to prove that He truly is God’s Son and live in obedience—that testing is part of life.
4) Finally, Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg points out that the location of this event is symbolic of life (Come Follow Me, Year B, 35). It takes place in the river Jordan between the northern Sea of Galilee, which is full of life-giving water, and the south Dead Sea, in which nothing can live. The Jordan river, however, flows southwards, and, if we’re the kind of people who ‘go with the flow,’ then that leads to spiritual death. In order to grow, daily life will often be a fight against difficulties.
Consequently, life is a mixture of spiritual consolation and desolation. From now on, we are going to use these technical terms in homilies and when we speak to each other, because all of us experience them all the time. Spiritual consolations are movements in our hearts that are generally happy, uplifting, joyful and peaceful, and in a spiritual way. Let’s say right now your experience of Mass is prayerful, and your faith, love, or desire to share Jesus with others is strong—that’s spiritual consolation. But let’s say that though you’re having a good day, when it comes to Mass, you actually want to be somewhere else—that’s a spiritual desolation. We’ll give more examples in the future.
For now, just realize that it’s normal that consolation and desolation alternate in our lives (Fr. Timothy Gallagher, The Discernment of Spirit, 49, 110). Don’t be surprised when this happens. God wants to console us, but desolation can also help us grow. How should we respond to these alternations? Begin again with equilibrium.
Please watch this clip (3:09 – 4:18) from a professor of psychiatry on the fourth characteristic of human maturity, in which he emphasizes perspective and the ability to see the whole picture in human relationships.
Now that’s maturity at a human level.
Maturity at a spiritual level is similar. St. Ignatius of Loyola writes in his 11th Rule for the discernment of spirits: “Let one who is consoled seek to humble himself and lower himself as much as he can, thinking of how little he is capable in the time of desolation without such grace or consolation. On the contrary, let one who is in desolation think that he can do much with God’s sufficient grace to resist all his enemies, taking strength from his Creator and Lord.”
Spiritually mature people have an equilibrium: When they’re consoled by God, they’re not naively high. They know they’re receiving a gift and know that desolation will come. And when they feel far from God, don’t feel like praying, serving or evangelizing, they stay faithful, because they know God is faithful. They have perspective, they see the whole spiritual picture.
Look closely at what St. Ignatius writes, ‘Let one who is consoled seek to humble himself… thinking of how little he is capable in the time of desolation without such grace or consolation.’ Some people, for example, after they get baptized, after an amazing experience at Alpha, realize that what they were given was a gift, and they didn’t deserve it. Therefore, when it’s temporarily taken away, they accept it with humility, and so they’re stable.
When we seek to humble ourselves, we think back on the last time we felt far from God. How strong were we? Did we give up? Were we faithful?” This reminds us of how much we need God, and that, without Him, we can do nothing.
On the other hand, St. Ignatius writes, “Let one who is in desolation think that he can do much with God’s sufficient grace to resist all his enemies, taking strength from his Creator and Lord.” For example, I’m tired, my friends haven’t contacted me lately, my boss has a moustache and her name is Adolf, and I don’t want to pray. I’ve been praying the 11:02 prayer but I haven’t seen anything happen. Or, I missed a few days so I just stopped doing it—that’s spiritual desolation. ‘Think,’ St. Ignatius says, that you can do much with God’s grace! Don’t panic and blindly follow your emotions. God is with you. You still have the choice. You can call your friends, love your boss and pray for her, and start praying for your loved ones again, even when you don’t feel like it! This is hopeful! And the desolation will pass when God chooses.
Last insight: In St. Matthew’s Gospel, he records that everyone heard the voice of the Father say to Jesus that He’s God’s beloved Son. But, what we just heard in St. Mark’s Gospel is that only Jesus heard it. It’s a private grace that we’re privileged to hear. In the same way, God the Father says to each of us privately, “You are my beloved son/daughter.” If we listen carefully, we’ll hear it. In the quiet of our hearts, at the beginning of 2021, we’re called to make one of the most life-giving personal choices: When we’re blessed by God, we’ll accept it, but won’t be naively high; and when we’re suffering, we’ll trust in Him. Begin again with equilibrium.