Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

Evolution for the Catholic Student

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Monday, January 9, 2012

For the Sake of Righteousness

For the Sake of Righteousness

          Today (Jan. 9) we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord.  It is a beautiful feast, on which we meditate in the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary.  It is an interesting question to wonder why Jesus submitted to baptism in the first place.  After all, people came to John the Baptist to be baptized as a sign of repentance for their sins.  Jesus, of course, being sinless, would not need to repent.

          St. John himself seems confused, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”  There are many answers to the question of why Jesus was baptized and I am certainly not qualified to give a theological treatise on it.  However, Jesus’s response to John’s question has led me to some personal reflections.  He said, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

          John, the greatest of the prophets, was preparing the way of the Lord.  And certainly he was a controversial figure.  By submitting to John’s baptism it seems to me that Jesus is endorsing him and giving an example of righteous behavior for others, who were in great need of repentance.

          I am reminded of a friend I knew in college, who I met through the Newman Center, named Joey.  I met him when I was a junior, about 20 years old, and he was a couple of years older than I.  I remember being very impressed at his maturity, not always a common trait on a university campus.  One discussion still resonates with me so many years later.

          Joey related to us how when he went to parties he never drank any alcohol.  Now Joey was over 21 and would occasionally have wine with dinner, in moderation.  He was certainly not the type to get drunk or have any problem with alcohol.  So we wondered why he felt the need to abstain at college parties.  He told us what we already knew – drinking was out of control at parties, anything but moderate, and certainly prevalent among under-age students.  He felt that drinking even in moderation at parties could be misconstrued or even scandalize those who knew him to be a devout Catholic, and that he could give a more powerful witness by abstaining altogether.

          I was impressed by his thinking and saw the wisdom in it at once.  I teach at a Catholic school and we often tell the kids when they play for one of our sports teams to be aware of their behavior because they are representing the school.  As Catholics we are always representing the Church, and for some, we may be the only Face of Christ they see.  The impression we leave them with can be very powerful.  Words are necessary tools for conversion, but if our actions are contradictory, they render our words powerless.

          I am reminded of a story of Mother Teresa and one of the many people she cared for.  This particular man was dying, and the saintly nun picked him off the street, cleaned and clothed him, tended to his needs, and treated him with dignity and love.  Finally she asked him if he would like to hear about Jesus.  He responded, “Is Jesus like you?”  “No,” she answered, “Jesus is not like me.  But I try to be like Him.”  “In that case,” the man said, “I want to become a Christian.”

          On the other hand, our actions have just as much power to keep others away from Christ.  If people see love in us, they will be attracted to the source of that love.  If they see spite they will be repelled from the Faith that supposedly drives us.

          From time to time that may even mean doing things purely for the example we can set, like my friend Joey.  Of course we are not to be virtuous for the sake of being noticed, but it is good to be conscious of the witness we give, “for the sake of righteousness.”

          Of course a caution is not to fall into scrupulosity.  It is possible to get so wrapped up in how we may be interpreted that it becomes damaging.  Being aware does not mean being obsessed.  Certainly if we are sincere in following Our Lord, we will give the proper witness, and I suspect if our motives are pure, God will intervene on our behalf so those we touch will be led to Him.