Jan 12, 2013

Sunday - Baptism of the Lord: Called, chosen, sent forth

Is 4: 1-4; 6-7
Acts 10: 34-38
Lk 3: 15 – 16, 21-22

The wonder of human birth is just that, an amazing wonder.  I have often heard parents refer to the birth of their child as a miracle. From my own family experience in the birth of my nephews and niece I would readily agree.  Of all the possible things that could go wrong, the very fact that so many children are born whole, intact, and healthy is indeed miraculous.  Yet, even with the advantage of proper health care, our hearts indeed reach out to those parents whose children are born less than perfect but are loved deeply nonetheless.

In the birth process, in addition to proper nourishment, there is probably nothing more important than the place of water in the mother’s womb. We grow in water, we are born in water, and we must be properly hydrated in order to live well. Water is life.

This Sunday’s celebration of the Baptism of the Lord brings the symbol of water right to the front. But it is more than just a ritual cleansing, which John himself referred to: “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire . . .” (Lk 3: 15 – 16).

John’s baptism would be incomplete from our Christian perspective. While he never claimed to offer the Holy Spirit to those who sought him out he did remind people of the cleansing power of his action.  John’s baptism was one of repentance and conversion.  He called people to prepare for the Lord to come who would offer far more – the Holy Spirit who would bring us the living flame of faith.  All these wonderful poetic/biblical images are important for us.  How Catholic they are and we see them in our sacraments: water, flame, oil, and in the Eucharist bread and wine.  

This powerful moment in the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus reminds us that our Christian faith is not just a set of values and morals.  It is not just about being nice and good to one another.  Rather it is centered on the existence of a person. We can have hope and confidence because Jesus is the anointed one. As we hear in the Gospel today: “. . . a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased’”(Lk 3: 22). This sign of divine paternity, the voice from heaven, was essential for the first readers of Luke’s Gospel as it remains for us. This identified Son of the Father walked into this world by mysterious means but for a benevolent purpose to reveal a great truth to us.

That truth we hear from St. Peter in the second reading from Acts: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality . . .” God is beyond politics, race, gender, language, culture or geography. More simply put, God is love and invites us into a relationship of love with him and one another that begins in another birth through water.

The Preface for Mass on this Sunday describes this image so well: “. . . in the waters of the Jordan you revealed with signs and wonders a new Baptism so that through the voice that came down from heaven we might come to believe in your Word dwelling among us and by the Spirit’s descending in the likeness of a dove we might know that Christ your Servant has been anointed . . . to bring the good news . . .” (Roman Missal)

This servant is of course Christ Jesus in whom we put our hope and confidence, the voice is that of God the Father from heaven who identified this Jesus as his own son and the Holy Spirit’s appearance reveals Jesus’ mission as the anointed one (Messiah) to bring the good news of God’s love to all humanity.  The mission of Christ is the work of the entire Trinity in whose name we are baptized.    

In the ritual of baptism we are marked with the sign of the cross and identified as dedicated for all time to God as his son or daughter. We too are anointed with oil (chrism) and sent on mission to pass on to others the Gospel we have received. To be called, chosen, signed, washed, and sent forth is the privilege we share in. The Trinitarian mission of Christ is thereby the mission of every disciple according to our vocations.  

Every married couple is called to share in this mission, particularly with children they bring into the world. To form them in the Gospel as they promise at the baptism of each child. Every ordained minister is called to act in the person of Christ and to be faithful to what the Church teaches as he shepherds others in the ways of faith.  Single folks have the luxury of more freedom than perhaps a married couple does and so they too have the responsibility to use that freedom wisely in works of charity and faithfulness to the Church.

Vatican II put it well in the universal call to holiness of each baptized member. The old concept of “pay, pray and obey” was replaced by the Church as the “People of God” in the key Document on the Church: Lumen Gentium. It recognized that because of baptism we share in the mission of Christ as priest, prophet and king.

While the explosion of ministries is a valid sign of the Holy Spirit’s work among us, we may yet have a ways to go to understand what personal holiness really means. Our present culture does little to support us in our faith journey. In fact it works against it as it seemingly challenges any public expression of faith.  So we must turn always to the community of the People of God, even with our sin and limitations, to create a culture where holiness is possible and recognized. Not isolated from the world around us but energized in our call to transform society.  Not an easy task.

God in his goodness sustains us with the power of his Word and the food of the Eucharist, his very self.  Let us pray as we journey that God will be able to say to us, “You are my beloved son/daughter with you I am well pleased.”