10 January 2015

With whom is the Father well pleased?

The site of Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River
As Holy Mother Church celebrates tomorrow the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, many preachers will be tempted to take the final verse of the Gospel which will be proclaimed and apply it to those sitting in the pews: "You are my beloved Son[/Daughter]; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11).

This tendency is troubling on many levels, the greatest of which is the seemingly constant desire of preachers today (and their listeners) to make everything in the Sacred Scriptures self-referential, that is, referring to each one of us at all times as individuals. Not every verse of the Bible refers to me or to you, and that should not bother us. Altering the text and meaning of this particular verse to apply to each person who has been baptized into Christ takes away the very purpose of the text as a theophany of the Messiah.

Applying these words to me or to you hides - or at least distorts - the tremendous significance of this act of condescension on the part of Jesus. As Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI writes:
Looking at the events in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind's guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping down into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross. He is, as it were, the true Jonah who said to the crew of the ship, "Take me and throw me into the sea" (Jonah 1:12). The whole significance of Jesus' Baptism, the fact that he bears "all righteousness," first comes to light on the Cross: The Baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity, and the voice that calls out "This is my beloved Son" over the baptismal waters is an anticipatory reference to the Resurrection (Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism to the Transfiguration [New York: Doubleday, 2007], 18).
What happened in the Jordan River is not so much about us, but about Him.

The Baptism of Christ, by Giotto

In his advice given to the young bishop Timothy, Saint Paul gives him a solemn charge:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosities, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths. But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry (II Timothy 4:2-5).
This admonition should be heeded by everyone entrusted with the sacred task of preaching, for an evangelist never points to himself, but always to Christ Jesus. We do a lot of encouraging today, but how often do we reprimand or convince?

It is certainly true that the Father is well pleased in us we live as friends of his Son. Jesus himself tells how live in such a way: "You are my friends if you do what I command you" (John 15:14). If a preacher decides to alter the wording or meaning of Mark 1:11, he should be aware that not everyone (maybe not even a significant number) to whom he would apply these words of the Father is living as a friend of the Son and he should reprimand them and convince them to live as such. God loves us as we are, yes, but he also requires something of us.

That being said, the Father speaks these words - "You are my beloved Son" - to reveal the divinity of his only-begotten Son, Jesus. Anything else is reading rather a lot into the text.

Commenting on this equivalent verse recorded by Saint Luke, Saint Bonaventure reminds us that,
In such a way, therefore, testimony to the Christ is manifested in a voice from the Father, in a dove from the Holy Spirit, and in light by the Son (Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 3.56. Emphases original).
Just a few lines before, the Seraphic Doctor puts it even more clearly when he states,
Therefore, the you mentioned here is to be taken distinctly, because there is no other" (Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 3.55. Emphases original).
We see this distinctness particularly in the readings Mother Church proclaims together with this passage of the Gospel.

For example, it is true that these words of the Lord spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be applied to me or to you, "I have formed you" (Isaiah 42:6), these words can certainly not be applied to me or to you, "until he establishes justice on the earth" (Isaiah 42:4).

Please, my fellow preachers, keep this you distinct.


  1. Anonymous9:21 AM

    St. Therese of Lisieux understood the words of the Father as spoken to her as well. In fact, it's been said that hearing these words of the Father spoken again and again in her heart was the key to her spirituality. So obviously there's something (thought not everything, of course!) to such a reading that goes beyond the narcissism to which you hint.

    Also, there's nothing here in your reflection that speaks to Mark's depiction of the scene at all. The preacher is not limited to Mark's text, of course, but I would think Mark's "take" on the baptism of Christ and the overall context of that Gospel deserves at least a passing glance in the year when his text is being proclaimed?

    Just some thoughts.

    1. And good thoughts, too; thank you for sharing them.

      It's certainly good and desirable to hear the Father speak these words to us in our hearts. Saint Therese heard these words addressed to her in prayer because, I would argue, she was living as a friend of Jesus. There's also a rather large difference between the Father speaking these words to an individual in private prayer and a preacher simply making such a general declaration addressed to everyone (whether living as a friend of Jesus or not) from the pulpit.

      To be fair, I did bring Mark's account into the post, as is seen in the quote from the first paragraph.I focused on one particular line purposely, one that is also found (verbatim) in the Gospel of Luke. Why did I quote from Saint Bonaventure's Commentary on the Gospel of Luke regarding this verse? Both because the verse is the same in the two Gospels (and so Bonaventure's comments are equally applicable to the text from Luke) and because I do not have a commentary from Bonaventure on the Gospel of Mark (I'm not sure he has one and my Markan commentaries remain in storage in Illinois; this commentary I bought here a few months ago).

      If it helps, here's what Bonaventure says about the verse in Mark:

      "But Mark 1:1 has: 'You are my beloved Son, in you I am please' [our translation - NAB - is the same in the two Gospels; his was different]. And here Luke says: _You are my beloved Son, in you it has pleased me_. Among these, however, there is no contradiction because they express the core meaning even though they do not reproduce the same words as Augustine says in his Book on the Harmony of the Gospels. Indeed, the wording is different, because the voice of the Father is full of meaning, that the Christ is the Word most similar and expressive of the Father and therefore most pleasing [this only confirms the point of my post]. And because the Father speaks himself to the Word in himself, he also speaks to us, in that he declares himself to others. He also says everything to the Word, whatever he speaks to the Word. And this is most perfect. And the Evangelist could not express this by a simple word, although that heavenly voice insulated this entire reality. Wherefore, the Evangelists expressed themselves in different ways, in such a way that Matthew refers to the Father's pleasure with regard to the Word, as he speaks himself in him. And thus he says: 'In whom I am pleased _with myself_.' Mark deals with the perspective of the Word, in as far as the Father speaks himself _to the Word_ and he pleases _others_. Thus, he says: 'I am pleased in you.' Luke deals with the perspective of the Word, in as far as the Father says _everything_ to the Word. Therefore, he says: '_In you it has pleased me_, that is, universally with regard to whatever pleaeses me" (Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 3.56).

      I hope that helps.

  2. Father Daren, What a delight it was to find your blog today during my regular Saturday morning perusal of the newadvent.org website. It was such a blessing to be on the recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land with you and 26 others. Thank you for being a priest and serving the Lord and His Church!

    1. Thank you, Jeff; I'm glad you found the blog and I hope our paths cross again in the years to come! You and Pam were great companions on the pilgrimage!

  3. Anonymous7:09 AM

    Hi Father Zehnke,

    I have to disagree with your interpretation in light of St. John of Avila ( our newest Doctor).

    St. John says that The Father sees us through the apertures of the wounds of His Son. Therefore as, noted Catholic Speaker Fr. Larry Richard reminds us to contemplate Mark 1:11, because Jesus "lived our lives" for 30 hidden years, we are to also be comforted by those words, if like a commenter above illumined through the Little Flower, if we are striving to live the life Jesus asks of us then we too can see those words applied to us.

    The Father looks on us as his precious creations. We often fail to live up to that fact but, none the less The Father always looks on us with love. Of course not in the same way as he looks on his Son but, again if we are striving to live as Jesus commands, if we are in fact striving to live as his friends and siblings, then The Father looks on us "through time" in is presence as his cherished children.

    I hope that makes sense.

    In the Love of our Lord Christ Jesus,

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Chip.

      Don't forget that Saint Bonaventure is also a Doctor of the Church and he speaks directly about this verse. Does Saint John of the Cross also speak specifically about this verse?

      No where did I imply that the Father does not look upon us with love, but that isn't the same as being well pleased with every person in the congregation. Is the Father well pleased, for example, with a couple living together and acting as husband and wife when they are not in fact married? Is the Father well pleased with a brother who refuses to forgive his brother? Is the Father well pleased with a woman who has not been to confession in 20 years?

      I do mention in my post that the Father is well pleased with those who are living as friends of his Son. And this I clarify in my reply to Ryan's comment about the difference between a preacher directing these words as a blanket statement to an entire congregation and the Father saying them to an individual in a moment of prayer, as he did with the Little Flower.

  4. Fr. Zehnle,

    I wonder what you may think of Pope Benedict making the very connection you find to be a troubling tendency, namely that question of whether the relationship Jesus has with his Father can be applied to account for the relationship the baptized have with the Father.

    "Dear brothers and sisters, what occurs in the Baptism that in a few moments I will administer to your children? It is this: they will be forever united in a profound way with Jesus, in the mystery of this power of his, that is in the mystery of his death, which is the font of life, to participate in his resurrection, to be reborn in a new life. This is the wonder that today is repeated also for your children: receiving Baptism they are reborn as children of God, participants in the filial relation of Jesus with the Father, able to turn toward God calling him “AbbĂ , Father” with complete confidence. Upon your children too the heavens have opened, and God says: these are my children, children in whom I am pleased. Inserted in this relation and liberated from original sin, they become members of the one body that is the Church and are now able to live in the fullness of their vocation to sanctity so as to have the possibility of eternal life, obtained for us by Jesus’ resurrection." Pope Benedict XVI, Vatican City, January 13, 2013.

    Would it be true to say that what Jesus Christ is by nature (the beloved Son of the Father), the baptized are by grace? Indeed, we do not share his divine nature from the eternal generation from the Father, but by grace the baptized do share in his divine filiation, I do believe.

    Just an important consideration as part of the public discussion.


    Fr. Luke Meyer

    1. Thank you for your question, Father.

      What Benedict XVI said doesn't contradict what I wrote. Indeed, the Father is very pleased with his sons and daughters at the moment of Baptism when sanctifying grace is given to us. However, it is possibly to lose this grace through mortal sin, though we still remain the adopted sons and daughters of God. Is the Father well pleased with his children living in mortal sin?

      I made a distinction in my post that many seem to have missed, and one that I clarified in an earlier comment. There is a difference between a preacher making a blanket statement that the Father is well pleased with everyone single person present at Mass and the Father himself saying these words to an individual. Even Benedict, in the words you bring up, does not make such a blanket statement, but refers to the words being said to those children about to be baptized.

    2. Indeed, it is possible for the state of grace to be lost through mortal sin, but the character of baptism is not forfeited by mortal sin. I do also acknowledge the distinction in your post, but there are some statements in your post that don't seem to honor that distinciton.

      For instance, you did write, "That being said, the Father speaks these words - "You are my beloved Son" - to reveal the divinity of his only-begotten Son, Jesus. Anything else is reading rather a lot into the text."

      It seems that the 2013 homily, the Holy Father is saying that there is indeed a legitimate 'anything else' in applying the scripture. Would you affirm that the words of the Father, "You are my beloved....", not only refer to Jesus, but can also be applied to the baptized man or woman in the state of grace?

      My purpose is not to belabor the discussion on this precise point, but to ensure that the important realities about the identity of the baptized as sons and daughters of the Father are preserved.


    3. If you take my "anything else" comment in context, you'll see - as I've said - that what Pope Benedict said does not contradict what I wrote and so I do not need to affirm what he wrote, though taken in the specific context in which he said it, I do not disagree.

      I might ask, though, if you disagree with Saint Bonaventure's teaching on these words of the Savior?

    4. I enthusiastically agree with St. Bonaventure, his comments on the passage are expanded nicely in the much needed August 6, 2000 Decleration 'Dominus Iesus'.

      Since the concept of divine filiation is so central to Catholic spirituality, affirming both the unicity of Christ's relationship to the Father and the identity of the baptised as adopted sons in the son, which is an additional affirmation to being friends of the son, is my main response to your article.

      Thank you for your kind responses to my comments and questions. Blessings upon your work and ministry.


      Fr. Luke Meyer