Lent 2006 -- Reflection
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Issue Date:  March 3, 2006

Jesus comes to terms with his destiny

Editor’s Note: Art historian Sr. Wendy Beckett is writing NCR’s Lenten series. Each week during Lent, she will discuss a work of art as it illustrates the life of Jesus.


FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT: “The Baptism of Christ” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1655

For Jesus, the turning point in his life was his baptism by John in the Jordan. All that came next -- the 40 days in the wilderness, with its temptations and decisions, his public life, and eventually his death and culminating resurrection -- stemmed from this critical experience.

-- Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/
Art Resource, NY

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682), "Baptism of Christ," Ca. 1655. Oil on canvas, 233,2 x 160,1 cm. Inv.: 4988. Location: Gemaeldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany.

Jesus came to his baptism as one among the crowd, an unknown young man from distant Nazareth. He was deliberately aligning himself with sinful humanity, waiting on his Father’s will, seeking the way to enter into his vocation. Murillo gets it absolutely right. Instead of the usual cluster of bystanders and attendant angels, he shows us only two figures that matter: John solemnly performing his priestly office and Jesus. Anybody looking on would have thought John the more important. He is higher, standing on the bank while Jesus is ankle-deep in the water. Instead of the traditional animal skins, this John is magnificent in a scarlet cloak, almost like a vestment. It is John who acts, Jesus who receives. There is the upright John, the humble posture of Jesus. Yet Murillo makes it quite clear that it is only Jesus who is significant. Our Lord is aware of no externals, perhaps not even of the baptismal waters. All his energies are concentrated within, as he hears the divine voice proclaiming him beloved Son, and senses the presence of the divine Spirit. It is at this moment that Jesus understands: He has been sent into the world not to judge it but to save it, to offer himself up for the ransom of all who would hear him. It will mean that he lays down his life, but only so that we “might have life, and have it to the full.” What we see in the face of Jesus is a coming to terms with his destiny, a resolution to be totally what his Father desires, a fundamental commitment.

Lent is about this commitment. It is a time set apart so that we can understand the claims of goodness, of what it means to be a Catholic. It is a time for decisions. It is far from a question of legalism: It is a question of love. When Jesus realized that he must preach the word of God, he set about doing so. He found apostles to help him, he left his home, he foreswore all earthly riches and comforts. For Jesus such sacrifices were necessary if he were to be free to reveal the Fatherhood of God. But each of us has a different vocation.

For most, this revelation of God’s love will come from what we are more than from what we say, and our outward lives may not be so very different from those of our neighbors who have not had our privilege. Think though: Do you reveal God to others? Does he in fact play much part in your life? Lent is the time for working out what you are meant to be doing, what in your life gets in the way. It may be something sinful: drinking too much, bullying, malicious gossip. You may realize with a jolt that you are basically indifferent to God. It may be something good in itself that holds you back: too much time wasted, too little trouble taken. Whatever needs to be changed in your life, now is the time to find out what it is and summon the courage to address it. The “penances” of Lent are not meant to destroy our innocent pleasures but to keep us aware of God. (Fish is a delightful food, but having to remember to eat it on Fridays kept us aware.) You will notice that Murillo does not show Jesus as gritting his teeth with determination, but as crossing his arms in prayer. The first Lenten decision should be to pray for guidance and help, a prayer that has never gone unanswered.

Millions of Christians are entering upon Lent: How many of us will be changed by it?

Art historian Sr. Wendy Beckett lives as a hermit near the Carmelite monastery in Quidenham, England.

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2006

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