THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD (2019)
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Psalm 29:1-4, 9-10
Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
Today the Church brings the Christmas season to an end with a celebration of Jesus’ baptism. It is a moment for us to reflect on the beginning of Jesus’ pubic ministry, and a moment for us to reflect on our own baptism, by which we are purified “from all sins” and made an adopted child of God. The child whose birth we celebrated such a short time ago, who was nurtured by the holiest of families and instructed in the faith by senior members of His community, is now ready to fulfill the plan that a loving God has for all people. With John’s baptism and His anointing by the Spirit, Jesus is confirmed as God’s “beloved Son,” and made ready, as St. Peter states in our second reading from the Acts of their Apostles, to go “about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”
Some might ask why Jesus waited so long to begin his earthly ministry? More importantly, another might ask why did Jesus even need to be baptized by John, especially since his baptism is described in the oldest gospel of Mark as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”? (Mk 1:4). Surely, our faith in Jesus as the sinless one is not misplaced? While these questions are not easily answered, we might simply say that Jesus was just not ready to begin the work for which He was sent until after the baptism of John. The many deeply spiritual moments that Jesus spent in prayer over the years, discerning what God’s will was for Him, needed the confirmation of that voice from the heavens to begin His earthly mission.
Reflecting on John the Baptist, Sr. Mary McGlone curiously suggests that “John the Baptist appeared on the scene like a combination of the Beatles, Bernie Sanders and Joan of Arc.” A rather peculiar view, which demands her explanation of why she feels that way: “Like the Beatles, John the Baptist attracted crowds who loved to hear him, enjoyed his unconventional appearance, and relished riding the wave of enthusiasm created by the masses who flocked to his performances. Like Bernie, John generated hope, new visions and loyalty from both the in-crowd and people on the sidelines. Like Joan, he denounced wrongdoing and exposed the cowardice of the authorities of his day — and they both lost their lives for it.”
Jesus is forever linked with his cousin John who had the privilege of baptizing Jesus, the Savior of the world. But as integral as John is to the Jesus story, there should be no confusing Jesus and John. John never saw himself as the Messiah. As Mark tells us in his gospel, John was merely “preparing the way of the Lord.” John claimed, in the words of Sr. McGlone, “to be nothing more than the “warm-up act to the mysterious One who was to come. From the start, Jesus came across as amazingly different from John. He was nowhere near as much of a scene-stopper and rarely preached fire and brimstone. In fact, according to John’s Gospel, when the Baptist pointed Jesus out to his disciples, instead of calling him a lion, he said, “Behold the lamb of God.” With John as the first act, people must have been expecting a spectacular follow-up. But our readings present Jesus in a humble light.”
It was through prayer and reflection that Jesus eventually saw Himself as the fulfillment of our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, the “chosen one with whom [God] is pleased.” Jesus would be the one to “bring justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street.” In obedience to His Father, Jesus came to see Himself as the “light” spoken of by Isaiah, who would “open the eyes of the blind” and “bring out prisoners from confinement.” His preaching and his teaching would attract many, but it would also threaten many who wished to protect their lofty status, and they would one day soon cry out for Jesus’ death.
Our celebration of the Lord’s baptism gives us the opportunity to reflect on our own baptism. Most of us were taken, without our consent, sometimes kicking and screaming, to the baptismal font, where we were made “members of the Body of Christ.” It was the extraordinary love of parents who desired to share with us something that they regarded as special that caused our baptism. The Catechism of the Church attests to what happened at the moment water was poured over our forehead: “Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark…. The baptismal seal enables and commits Christians to serve God by a vital participation in the holy liturgy of the Church and to exercise their baptismal priesthood by the witness of holy lives and practical charity.” (CCC 1272, 1273)
After our baptisms we were nurtured by the good example of our parents, and taught by our elders what being Christian is all about. In prayer and reflection we came to know the God we were configured to at our baptism, and we were able to experience the unconditional love of God, the Creator of all that is. Time after time we have had the opportunity to “confirm” what was done at our baptism, and to gain insight into what role in His salvific plan God is asking us to play.
We will spend a lifetime trying to model our lives on that of Jesus, making us more worthy to bear the name of Christian. On this day when we celebrate the baptism of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we make the opening prayer of today’s liturgy our own:
“O God, whose Only Begotten Son has appeared in our very flesh,
Grant, we pray, that we may be inwardly transformed
Through him whom we recognize as outwardly like ourselves.”
May we never tire of the struggle to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.