The Deepest Truth About Ourselves: What the Lord’s Baptism Means for Us
“Do not forget: anyone who does not realize that he is a child of God is unaware of the deepest truth about himself.”
ST. JOSEMARIA ESCRIVA
Friends of God, no. 26
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11). Immediately after Christmas, until the feast of our Lord’s Baptism, St John’s First Epistle is frequently placed in our focus, both in the readings of the Mass and of the Divine Office. We hear St John taking great pains to explain how the coming of Christ in the flesh should change our entire outlook, the way we see God and self, our spirituality, our way of thinking.
We can almost feel him taking us by the arm as he encourages us along our journey to walk in newness of life. His message reaches its climax in a couple of lofty verses which say everything about our new identity in Christ: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are…. Beloved, we are God’s children now” (1 Jn 3:1-2). These words still sound fresh, urgent, and attractive to us after two thousand years. As soon as we hear them, we want to seize upon them and say: It’s true, I believe it, but how? What does it feel like to be a child of God? What does it look like? Are these even the right questions to ask?
For many Christians it’s as though they’re missing something very basic, something that should be obvious, something that ought to clearly mark how we think, act, and speak—a reality that should bring us the assurance of love, peace, and unbounded confidence in God. Sometimes even good and faithful believers will admit that, although they believe in God’s love for them and in their status as His adopted children, it remains largely a theory. They do not “feel” it and so do not think, act, and pray as beloved children.
In general, people struggle with their identity. Mostly as a result of original sin, people frequently find themselves wanting to be something other than what they are. Adam and Eve were God’s beloved children, but sought after a higher status independent of God, making themselves His “competitors,” as it were. The contemporary spiritual writer, Fr Jacques Philippe, mentions in his book The Way of Trust and Love how people often want to be more of something—more attractive, more intelligent, more respected, more virtuous, more free, more talented, etc.1 This can point to a fundamental insecurity about ourselves or a broader dissatisfaction about how our lives are turning out.
If we are not careful, these desires (which can be good), might amount to our not wanting to have to rely on anyone or anything, not even on God Himself. We want to be self-sufficient and self-made, to impress the world by our own resourcefulness and innate personal strength. But this is all a part of the original lie that beguiled our first parents and which too often has the power to tempt us. God does not call us to be His children because we are beautiful, persuasive, eloquent, charming, intelligent, or especially talented. You might be all of those things and more, but that is not why God calls you to be His child, nor is it why God loves you.
God makes us His children so that He can love us as our Father, so that He can share His goodness in the most abundant way possible. Children are in the best possible position to receive: everything that they need must come from their parents. Just so, the Lord wants us to rest spiritually in that same dependent position, so that He can give as a Father gives and we can receive as children receive.
In a poignant Christmas sermon2, Blessed John Henry Newman reflects on “this season, when we are engaged in celebrating God’s grace in making us His children, by the incarnation of His Only-begotten Son, the greatest and most wonderful of all His mercies.” As Newman probes into man’s unholy drive for independence, he appeals to some basic needs of human nature: “But as time goes on, … all men will find that independence was not made for man—that it is an unnatural state—may do for a while, but will not carry us on safely to the end.” It is both unnatural and perilous to deny in thought or action what God wills us to be.
We have to want to be what God has made us to be: His children. Christian spirituality takes Divine filiation or sonship as its primary point of departure, making us consciously dependent on God for absolutely everything. St Josemaria regards this simply as a matter of justice: “If you are really striving to be just, you will often reflect on your utter dependence upon God, and be filled with gratitude and the desire to repay the favors of a Father who loves us to the point of madness.”3
This is what it means to be a child of God: Depending, trusting, taking risks for God— this is what our Baptism leads us to as His children. No one can compel us to feel one way or another about our Divine filiation, because our status as adopted children does not depend upon something as mutable as our moods and feelings. But to act in faith according to this deepest truth about ourselves brings us an experiential conviction that God is “our Father, and very much our Father, … who is both near us and in heaven.”4
We find that God is faithful when we do as the beloved Son of God did in His life upon earth. Right after His baptism, Jesus put Himself in a position of utter dependence on His heavenly Father: “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry” (Lk 4:1-2). Our Lord was strong, fearless, and trusting—to teach us what our own Baptism should inspire in us. He does not even feed Himself, but allows the angels of God to minister to Him.
This is what it looks and feels like to be the children of God. Humanly speaking, when someone knows that he is admired by another, or someone has affection for him, there is a feeling of humble confidence, of joy, of strength and courage. I am seen by another who takes pleasure in me. And the last thing we want is to be rebellious and independent. Union, love, and self-giving are all we can think of.
On the supernatural level, we take this a step further. The evident failure of all creatures to love us completely and to make us feel truly loved and accepted, compels us to depend on God alone for our security. We have to be completely swept away by the truth that God looks upon us with perfect love, always love, and only love: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us” (1 Jn 4:10). Everything else in our lives should flow from that golden truth: our prayer, our work, our interpersonal relationships.
Our baptism initiates us into this mystery of God’s love for us, because in it the Father’s love is impressed within us—a love which He never removes. What St Josemaria calls the “deepest truth” about ourselves means exactly this: In the Lord’s baptism our own status as God’s children is shown forth. As the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus and the Father declares His pleasure in His Son, the deepest truth about our identity is revealed: We too are God’s beloved children, whose calling it is to receive the love that He pours into us with gratitude and the desire to repay the favors of a Father who loves us to the point of madness.
1 Philippe, Jacques. The Way of Trust and Love. New York: Scepter, 2012. Cf. pages 44-45.
2 “Remembrance of Past Mercies,” Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. V, Sermon 6.
3 From the homily “Open to God and Men,” Friends of God, 167.
4 Cf. The Way, 267.