As we move into the second week of Winter Ordinary Time, there is something about Nathan Mitchell’s reflection on the deeper meaning of the Baptism of the Lord that bears repeating. In an article entitled, “Jesus’ Vision of a New Community” (Liturgy, vol.1, no. 2 (1980) 37-44) Mitchell makes the point that the Baptism of the Lord as the closing feast of the Christmas season does not terminate the ongoing impact of the Incarnation. He challenges the faithful with the realization that with the feast of the Lord’s baptism the church is “asked to move in the direction of life itself: from concern for intimacy to concern for community.” He goes on to explain:
“A Christian parish becomes its best self when it accepts the challenge of community. The parish community, as the real expression of the local church, cannot limit its attention to the search for justice and intimacy among its own members, it must be prepared to take up the cross, standing against evil and injustice wherever they exist in the world.”
The power of these words surely needs to echo in the social and political contexts in which believers find themselves as we descend from the heights of Christmas this year. It is a crucial challenge to consider especially as believers, not only in the United States, but also throughout the world, leave the joys of Christmastide or the amorphous “holiday season” and discover society mired in more woes and confusion and anxiety and distress so as to call foul on the month of December as a foolish respite incapable of effectively dealing with reality.
For American society, at least and as our culture has envisioned and promoted it, Christmas is the height of intimacy. Prevalent images of familial bonding, gatherings with close knit groups of friends, sharing convivium over a feast, around a tree or a roaring fire surround the season. How many times do actors and actresses, when asked what is Christmas all about to them, respond with the quixotic phrase: “It’s all about family?” The ardent desire and yearning for intimacy in a world where false intimacy dominates through the shadow of social networking and technological bonding is somehow assuaged by an almost mythic encounter with intimacy at Christmas. But is this a true assessment of the nature of Christmas? While the desire and encounter with and for intimacy during the Christmas season can be very good and very fruitful, it can also escape many who search for it with a sense of mocking indifference.
The deep search for intimacy doesn’t stop with Christmas, however. Might we conclude that our society finds itself, whether consciously or not, caught in a series of webs of intimacy, each claiming to secure personal identity and protection of our values, hopes, and dreams? Do these types of webs stand over and against each other, vying for control and dominance? It is intimacy in its most challenging and disabling expression. It is an intimacy that seeks to pit groups against each other, and malign those groups whose intimacy is received as threat to another. It makes social relationships and responsibilities not only ineffective, but incapable of operating at all. Intimacy becomes cultic and distorts its life-giving nature, transforming it into a life-conforming obligation where any deviation is considered treason.
It is here that the community of believers needs to remember, and remember with anamnetic power, that the child whose birth we heralded the last three weeks is born for all of humanity, in all times and in all places. This is the thrust of Mitchell’s call for the move to concern for community, which the transition from Christmas into Ordinary Time places on all the baptized. It is the counter-cultural recognition of what is celebrated at Christmas – the beginning of the great task given to believers to contribute to building up the Reign of God, where the intangible wishes for peace, good will, joy, and hope are no longer intangible, but concrete, real, and effective. If we fail to recognize the coming of God into our time and place in Jesus of Nazareth is an event that changes the course of human history for all humanity – indeed for all of creation – we fail to grasp our mission as believers to further and deepen its impact on us.
Perhaps it is, then, that with the light of faith, believers are asked to consider the experience of intimacy as a profound expression of our need for one another on a personal, individual level, and that the experience of community as the communal, shared recognition of the many ways in which each of us needs such encounters with intimacy. It is faith exercised with the appreciation of what makes it possible for human beings to flourish within creation. It is the gospel’s challenge put into practice.