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A crime wave overtaking major cities is making residents ponder the roles of their lawmakers, police and religious authorities in bringing peace back to their communities. But as the hearts of those in power converge to try establishing covenants by law, those with the REAL power—we the people—need to look to our own hearts at the state of the covenant written there.

A covenant is a “coming together” over a binding agreement.Biblical covenants were often sealed in sacrificial blood. That’s why in the Old Testament, covenants never held much water because they were sealed mostly in the blood of non-voluntary sacrificial animals to please a god whose face people couldn’t see. Such covenants might as well have been anonymous.

This Sunday’s readings for the Baptism of Our Lord show us that’s not how the God whose fatherhood we share with Jesus works. The covenant for which Jesus volunteered himself invites us to enter it in the same spirit of volunteerism. It is therefore both faith- and face-based. The prophet Isaiah describes that personal covenant as an invitation requiring a face-to-face connection among all of God’s signatories (Is 42:1-4, 6-7).

I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice, I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.

The fact we in the 21st century leave those roles to our civil and religious leaders may explain why violence against the born and unborn is rampant in today’s society. It’s easy to accept such victimhood as a way of life if those victims are as faceless as our fellow citizens.

It may also explain why, in San Francisco, one of our many crime-ridden cities, a Catholic high school taught a rather uncomfortable lesson recently. It came about at an assembly where a pro-life advocate spoke. Many students walked out on it in protest. For them being pro-choice was more sacramental than the baptism that put them in a Catholic school. Therefore, the decision to diss a pro-life advocate was an easy choice because the non-voluntary sacrificial victims of abortion are as faceless as the victims of our cities’ crime waves.

If only the souls of those young Catholic protesters had been as fired-up about the faith in which they were baptized. They might realize that the ceremony that made Catholics Catholic in name was just as personal to our parents and to our God as the one foretold by John the Baptist in Sunday’s gospel reading (Lk 3:15-16, 21-22):

“I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming, I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Amidst this 21st century pandemic in which we are all called to protect each other by masking our faces, it’s easy to lose track of the souls giving those faces life. It’s therefore easier to leave each other’s well-being—the born and the unborn—up to a faceless power structure. Let’s conclude with this reminder from Sunday’s second reading from Titus (Ti 2:11-14; 3:4-7) about the deliverables in our baptismal covenant with God …

… to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good.

The beneficiaries of our goodness have faces, and our baptismal covenant requires us to be as mindful of the souls expressed in theirs as God is of ours. This agreement’s payback to us is peace in our day. Our names on its bottom line ensure it.

–Tom Andel

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