Jan 11, 2014

Baptism of the Lord: Jesus embraces Us

(The Baptism of Christ - Vannini, 1642)
"Allow it for now . . . This is my beloved Son . . ."

Is 42: 1-4, 6-7
Acts 10: 34-38
Mt 3: 13-17

Did you ever admire someone so much that you wanted to constantly imitate them? We may see this more often in children who look up to their bigger brother or sister. Or it could be among sports athletes whose abilities on the field or the court are so extraordinary that younger aspiring athletes study their every move and imitate their honed skills.  In the end, such positive role models can do much good for others.

In this Sunday’s Feast of the Lord’s Baptism we find someone who so admired another that he wanted to fully identify with them.  No, it isn’t John wanting to copy Jesus but rather Jesus himself who, out of divine love, seeks to fully identify with us! Every time we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism by John, we may ask the question: “Why did Jesus submit to the baptism of repentance that John was preaching in the desert?” If we say Jesus was without sin why would he seek to be baptized, to repent and be forgiven of sin? Maybe he was more fully human than we realize.
That argument was a conversation by early Christians but the baptism of Jesus, found in all four Gospels, was an event of identification.  That is, as he began his public mission, Jesus in submitting to the baptism of repentance by John, was not admitting to his own personal sin but rather to ours. John himself knew this: “I need to be baptized by you and yet you are coming to me.” For the Gospel writers it was essential to establish the superiority of Jesus over John but it seems there was far more.

The prevailing explanation of scripture scholars and theologians explains it this way. We assume that sin is a normal part of being human.  “Nobody is perfect,” we say. Yet, the scriptures remind us (Genesis) that God created human beings not to be sinful but to live in perfect obedience, without sin if we can imagine such a life. Jesus, fully human except for sin, is God in the flesh come among us – the Spirit of God descends like a dove to hover over Jesus after his baptism and we hear “a voice from the heavens saying ‘This is my Son with whom I am well pleased.’”
In his baptism, Jesus embraces the human condition fully and takes upon himself our guilt and sin which then reminds us the way to heal a relationship broken by sin between God and humanity is to be cleansed in the waters of baptism and to seek Christ as our hope for constant reconciliation.  God has identified fully with the human condition but reminds us that sin is not a part of it. The sinless one identifies with the guilty. Water and Spirit not only restore us to right relationship with God but we become ambassadors of Jesus, sends out as “missionary disciples” to share in the mission which Jesus began.

As Pope Francis in his recent Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, reminds us: “In all the baptized, from first to last, the sanctifying power of the Spirit is at work, impelling us to evangelization . . . In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (Mt. 28:19). All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization . . . The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized . . ." (EG: 119, 120)
Granted, all this is much to chew on. It may not be a constant thought we hold each day but each time we recall this event we are reminded of the mystery that God has worked in us and the seeds of faith planted at the moment of our baptism. And mystery it is indeed as are all the sacraments of our Church.

God’s invisible grace poured into us at baptism did not change us physically.  We still look the same, speak the same, and have all of our various quirks. Babies continue to cry, soil their diapers, and babble on in spite of their baptism.
But baptism does affect an interior spiritual change; a mystery of God’s grace.  The outward signs of water, oil, and fire symbolize what we cannot see – a spiritual cleansing an anointing (a being set apart and marked for Christ) and the fire of the Spirit of God which descends on us. We are changed profoundly by God’s grace and made his adopted children through these waters.  As I recently heard someone put it well: “God signs the adoption papers.”

The mission is for all to hear.  As St. Peter from our second reading today reminds us: “I see that God shows no partiality.  Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him . . .”
A baptismal song puts it this way: “In waters we are sent to be the heart and hands of Christ.”

Ok all you fellow missionaries!  Let’s pray that our lives will always be an example to others. What a privilege we have and what a responsibility.   
 Almighty ever-living God
who, when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan
and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him,
solemnly declared him your beloved Son,
grant that your children by adoption,
reborn of water and the Holy Spirit,
may always be well pleasing to you.
(Collect of Sunday Mass)