A college Professor stood before his classroom of young students, mostly in their early 20’s. He asked a broad, general question: ‘How long have you lived?’
The students looked somewhat puzzled: what did this have to do with their sociology class? The professor saw their quizzical looks and approached a young man sitting in the front row. He looked at the young man and said: ‘Son how long have you been alive? How long have you lived?’
The young man looked like a deer caught in headlights and fumbled with his words saying, ‘Well I’m soon to turn 21 so I guess nearly 21 years.’
The professor shook his head, ‘No, no. I didn’t ask how long your heart has pumped blood of your lungs drawn air. I asked how long have you been alive? How long have you lived, really lived?’ In response to the even more curious, confused expressions the professor told them a story:
‘When I was in the 6th grade, about 12 years old. Our class went on an excursion to the Empire State Building in New York City. 12 year old boys are more interested in fooling around and chasing girls than big buildings and learning. So, we chased girls and fooled around, much to our teacher’s displeasure and frustration. At one point I ran close to the side of the Observation Deck and looked out. I was stopped in my tracks and caught my breath. In that one instant I saw the whole of New York City laid out before me and I beheld a great wonder. I stood transfixed, just staring into the wondrous sight. Time stood still and everything else dimmed before this moment, this wondrous experience that consumed me and I felt my whole being alive as rarely before. Nerve fibres tingled, and I felt one with everything. I have had that same experience at several other times as well. So, let me ask you once again, how long have you been alive?’
The young man pondered a moment and then looked up: ‘When you put it like that, Doc, I’ve probably lived fully for a few minutes.’
I wonder how much living most people actually achieve, and how often people find themselves fully alive? The late priest, author and spiritual director, Anthony de Mello, says that most people spend their lives asleep – they are born asleep, grow asleep, marry asleep, work in their sleep, and die asleep. They never come truly alive to who they are and can be. They live within themselves and give in to the restrictions of society, peer pressure, fear… He tells a story of a farmer on his morning walk. He stumbled across a large egg lying in the grass. Curious he picked it up and it was still warm in his hands. There appeared to be a nest in the tree but no sign of birds. The farmer took the egg home and placed it under one of his brooding hens. Finally, the egg hatched and out came an eaglet. The hen took charge of this chick along with the other chickens and raised it like the others. The baby eagle learned to peck for food in the barnyard. It learned to fly short distances to escape the cat or a fox and never took to the sky.
One day the eagle who thinks it is a chook looked up and saw a large and striking bird. This bird soared on the air currents and glided through the skies. The eagle-chook was transfixed by the wonderous sight. It was completely in awe of this magnificent bird and commented to his neighbour. The neighbour looked up and said, ‘Ah, that is the eagle, a regal bird and King/Queen of the skies!’
‘Wow, I wonder what it would be like to soar like that and be so grand?’ said the eagle-chook.
His neighbour scoffed and told him to stop dreaming – we are only chooks. So, they went back to pecking in the barnyard for grain and seed and the eagle never really became what it could and should have been. Again, I wonder how often this story is lived out in the lives of people who never discover their full potential and true calling.
This week we read the story of Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:15-22). It comes around every year from the perspective of a different Gospel writer. The scene is set when people come out of the city to hear John the Baptist, a raw, honest prophetic voice calling people to come and have minds, being and hearts turned upside down and inside out, to become the people God created them to be. He invites people into a repentance, a turning around and opening of mind, heart and spirit and to live in a new, hope-filled, compassionate way. They came in droves, expectantly and hopefully.
John’s preaching is against the backdrop of struggle, harsh life and people yearn for something more, something hopeful and real. John is, in effect, waking the people up and calling forth their ‘inner eagle’. His words are sometimes harsh, strong, pointed and always grounded in love, compassion, generosity, justice and peace. John offers a baptism, a ritual cleansing that symbolises their turning around and embracing a new way in God. The people respond to John and believe he is the Messiah, sent by God to lead the people back to where they need to be. John recoils from this expectation, pointing to one who will come, who is greater and will baptise in cleansing, renewing fire and life-giving Holy Spirit.
At the end of the passage Jesus appears but we aren’t clear about whether his baptism is by John or others because John is said to have been arrested by the King, whom his words have upset and caused anger. Jesus was baptised, cleansed, renewed and offering himself into this way of deep life, love and grace. After rising through the waters, Jesus prayed. He prays often in Luke’s Gospel and his prayers are efficacious in bringing new awareness and understanding, new directions and they change everything. Whilst praying there is the mysterious mystical experience whereby he receives Divine blessing and the pronouncement that ‘You are my Son the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
After baptism and blessing, Jesus is driven into the wilderness, the place of testing, temptation, seduction/temptation to let go of this way, this journey, this ideology and expectation of God. The voice says: ‘Let go and be like everyone else’ – asleep. Jesus resists as he does throughout his life and mission and follows the way of God; a way of compassionate, engaged, just life that is lived in blinding technicolour.
It is into this spiritual journey we are invited to follow. We are invited into the reality of relationship in God. We are children of God and find our being, our calling and our life in God where all things find their balance and we discover whom we are created to be. We no longer have to prove ourselves or live in fear. We don’t have to fight and judge or define but are free to be and live in relationship with God, others and all creation! We are free to soar like the eagle we are created to be, to awaken and live in the bright, wondrous moment that is a gift and joy.