Photo by John McMahon on Unsplash
I’ve recently added a liturgical calendar to my phone; even turning on notifications. Even though I grew up Presbyterian and have been influenced deeply by many writers from liturgical traditions, I’ve never fully appreciated liturgy or the liturgical calendar.
Not until I read in Tish Harrison Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary that the liturgical calendar was how the church kept time did I ever pause to think about if and how my time was ordered. How did I know what time it was? If the Solomon tells us, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens,” (Ecc. 3:1) was there a way to not only know the time but the rightful activity?
As I have written elsewhere, these past few years have been very turbulent for me. The distress and disappointments of this season of my life has created for me a crisis of order; a crisis of understanding how my previous season has disordered me and what a season of reordering might involve. This has set me to learning all types of things about how the mind and body interact (or refuse to), attachments styles, and somatic approaches to healing from trauma (EMDR, yoga, swimming). It has also heightened my sense of the importance of time and routine; the way we know our beats and rhythms in this dance of life.
This is why I’ve downloaded this calendar to my phone. I am probably the least routinized person I know; spontaneity and authenticity are some of my highest values! But my need for order feels more urgent than ever. Within the lingering internal aftereffects of a season of scary chaos, my threshold for external disorder has plummeted. Ordered rhythms without enable me to maintain something ordered within. And I suck at this!
All that to say, now I know today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and I know where my thoughts must go.
It’s interesting that this liturgical day marks the beginning of Ordinary Time – the periods between major liturgical events, with this one ending at Lent – because there is something of the baptism of Jesus that answers the fundamental question of how his every moment might be spent: the life of the Beloved.
I have shamelessly stolen the title of this post from a Henri Nouwen book. It could actually probably be the title of every Henri Nouwen book. The book in question pursues the theme of being beloved over and against the dark power of self-rejection. Nouwen writes, “Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection.” (31) The use of the word trap is key, for it is in our self-rejection that our susceptibility is most pronounced. And nowhere is this clearer than in the baptism of Jesus.
Matthew records this in punchy succession. At the onset of Jesus’ public ministry, he goes to his cousin John to be baptized in the Jordan. We read that when Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens opened. John saw – saw! – “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” (3:16) And then a voice from heaven made the following declaration:
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased!” (3:17)
I’ve often thought about how Jesus lived the most important life and did the most important work in the history of the world and what might have been the most obvious questions in play during these inaugurating moments: “Where to begin?” or “What are my objectives?” or “What’s the plan?”
Instead, we are met with the issue of who — of identity. “This is who you are!”
And if we accept Nouwen’s conclusions regarding the trap of self-rejection, we appreciate the importance of this. The nature of Jesus’ ordinary days was to be paramount! Would he be in the world with generosity or neediness; love or insecurity; with nothing or everything to prove?
“This is my beloved Son,” announced the voice of the Father, “with whom I am well pleased!” In a world of gaping insecurity – a world in which “all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another” (Ecc. 4:4) – Jesus was to live from this declaration: beloved and the object of true pleasure.
The life of the Beloved.
Jesus was then “led by the Spirit into wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (4:1) And what there transpired? Only an all out assault upon the certainty and significance of this pronouncement, “If you are the Son of God,” hissed the devil, “prove it.” It was a snare!
If there had been even a hint of self-rejection in Jesus – the smallest diminution of the Father’s grand pronouncement – the devil might have had his quarry. But, in transcendent departure from the entire human family, Jesus did not take the bait.
Jesus essentially responded, “I have nothing to prove.” The pronouncement had been made and unreservedly received. More than that, Jesus demonstrated the surpassing value of this pronouncement, for even “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (4:8) could in no way be compared to the bounty of being the Beloved.
Having endured this assault, Jesus began his ministry of love – costly love! – entering the world with nothing to prove and everything to give. Luke tells us that Jesus returned from the wilderness “in the power of the Spirit.” (4:14) The Spirit of belovedness had triumphed over all other rivals. It is impossible to miss the spiritual power of Jesus’ life. Our world tells all time by it!
But what is more profound still is that the life of the beloved is ours to live also!
I’m resisting the urge to sermonizing, except to mention that this is utterly biblical! This is the Good News!
In Christ we are adopted and sealed with the selfsame Spirit, “By whom we cry ‘Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:4-6; Eph. 1:13) The selfsame Spirit was poured as God’s love into our hearts (Rom. 5:5) and testifies to our spirits that we are God’s children! (Rom. 8:15-16) Jesus is the firstborn of many siblings! (Rom. 8:29)
There is a reason beloved is most common pronoun for believers in the New Testament. Ours is to be the corporate life of the beloved.
Let us accept the phrasing John – “the beloved disciple” – offers as the defining feature of the believer: we are those who “have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” (1 Jn. 4:16)
In his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen portrays the entire Christian life as a faltering journey home from distant and loveless lands to the belovedness of the Father. “[L]eaving the foreign country is only the beginning. The way home is long and arduous.” (51) The return is “full of ambiguities.” We may be “traveling in the right directions, but what confusion.” (52) It is a hemming and hawing odyssey; at times we are found coming to our senses, other times we are found losing our minds!
When we lose living contact with the Father’s love – and our identity as the beloved – Nouwen warns, we “embark on the destructive search among the wrong people and in the wrong places for what can only be found in the house of [our] Father.” (107)
In such seasons, Noewen notes, “The world around me becomes dark. My heart grows heavy. My body is filled with sorrows. My life loses meaning. I have become a lost soul.” (47) I can relate. Maybe you can too?
So on this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, as we prepare to exit Advent and embark upon Ordinary Time, let us feast the way our Savior did, upon the love and pleasure of the Father. May it nourish us through the wilderness and beyond. May it multiply in us, that we might part ways with our scarcity, our stinginess, and our greed, going forth generously.
“Freely you have received!” Jesus declared, “Freely give!” (Mt. 10:8)
Can you – will you – hear the Father’s warm and booming voice? “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased!” Is this not the most fitting celebration of our Savior’s baptism?
“This is the God I want to believe in: a Father who, from the beginning of creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms rest on their shoulders. His only desire is to bless.”Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son
“Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 Jn. 3:1)
2 thoughts on “The Life of the Beloved”
Thank you, Matt. You rang all the bells for me with this essary!! I am a bit fan of Tish Warren and especially love her second book on compline, Prayer in the Night. I am so excited that’s she’s having great national attention as a guest opinion page writer for the NYT. I have always thought of these weeks before Lent as Epiphany and that Ordinary Time is after Pentecost until Advent. I got in trouble recently for referring to Ordinary Time as the Western Kansas of the church year. I’m also a big fan of Life of the Beloved. The book makes a great retreat and certainly contains the heart of the Gospel.
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Thanks Katherine. I’m probably making mistakes on all this. Also, Ordinary Time is a newer idea, I think. Having just spent time in the rolling beauty of western Kansas, I think it’s an apt and honorable description! Peace to you! – MP