Updated: Feb 5, 2021
Mass readings for this celebration can be found: [HERE]
A somewhat tangential image came to my mind when reflecting upon our gospel passage for today. I promise to bring this discussion back on point—or at least try to—but first, I do want to share a few thoughts on this image. What came to mind was a military salute.
One doesn’t have to be initiated into the military to know what a salute is, or even its purpose—that’s something that can be researched. But to truly appreciate a fine salute, as I’ll call it, does take some enculturation or experience.
A fine salute isn’t reducible to protocol, though it does pay obeisance to it. A fine salute communicates more than an acknowledgement of rank. It’s more than a gesture of greeting or farewell. I know it when I see it.
It moves me. It’s honest. It demands my response. It commands respect. It stops me in my action and summons me to that present moment. It communicates conviction, resolve, and determination. It conveys a gravitas that words alone fail to reach. The fine salute is a message in itself. It’s a declaration of identity. It’s an oath of fealty.
With regard to appearances, what is perhaps most noticeable is the placement of the hand in relation to the brow. But to the discerning eye, the soldier, sailor, airman, marine, and guardian salutes with the entire body. Like the flag post, it’s unwavering and disciplined. It’d be better to refrain from saluting altogether, rather than to render the salute half-heartedly or sloppily.
It’s easily learned in its most basic form, but perfected only with the passing of years. It’s achieved after countless expressions. It’s as practiced as one’s handwriting. It’s an accumulation of many subtleties that give force to its final form. It can’t be faked or imitated.
At the surface level, one salute may seem identical to any other. But the fine salute is as unique as one’s signature or fingerprint. It’s received, learned, practiced, and then passed on to the next generation.
So also the Catholic salute. This is where I bring us back on point. The Catholic disciple salutes our God; the servant salutes our Lord; the redeemed salutes our Savior—every single time we make the Sign of the Cross.
We all sign ourselves with the Cross when we begin and end our prayers as a matter of protocol. But a finely made crucifying sign encompasses everything conveyed by a fine salute and more.
Like the salute, the Sign of the Cross is our declaration of identity, which we boldly proclaim; our oath of fealty, which we profess without shame. It’s our summons to the present moment. It demands a response from the Living God.
It also is easily learned in its most basic form, but moves closer towards perfection only with the passing of years, and with the increase of faith. It’s also achieved after countless expressions, is as practiced as one’s handwriting, and is an accumulation of many subtleties that give force to its final form. Like a salute, it can’t be faked or imitated. At a surface level, one Sign may seem identical to any other. But the fine Sign of the Cross is as unique as one’s signature or fingerprint.
It’s unwavering and disciplined. It’d be better to refrain from Signing altogether, rather than to Sign oneself half-heartedly or sloppily. It’s received, learned, practiced, and then passed on to the next generation. It’s a message in itself, spoken in all sincerity, and with all faith. And that message speaks the mystery at the very heart of our Faith: the revelation that the One God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
That message resounds in our gospel passage. For the very first time—publicly—God revealed himself has Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father’s voice was heard: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” This voice came from the heavens as Jesus arose from the waters, and the heavens were torn open, and the Holy Spirit, like a dove, descended upon him.
Our Feast today is called the Baptism of the Lord, and how beautiful a celebration, that the beginning of Christ’s ministry was inaugurated with the revelation of the Holy Trinity. So also began our journey of faith in baptism. We were each reborn into the body of Christ in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. So begins Christian marriages. A couple vow themselves to one another in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. So begins priestly ordination. A man is consecrated into a sacrament of Christ in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. So begins the reconciliation that happens in Confession. The priest says to the penitent, “I absolve you from your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
So it is with all the sacraments, and with every aspect of our faith. Always we profess and seal our faith under that Sign, that fine Sign: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Baptism of Christ by Pietro Perugino, c.1482 [wikipedia]