Jan 10, 2015

Baptism of the Lord: Sent in his name

Is 55: 1-11
1 Jn 5: 1-9
Mk 1: 7-11

Hidden rituals or ceremonies, top-secret codes and passwords, secret handshakes or signs are the stuff of initiation rituals. Maybe there was a time when as a child you created an inner group of friends and shard a secret password only the members knew.  Maybe you later joined a club or organization that withheld some private information known only to its properly initiated members.  We hear the stuff of college initiation rituals and the poor freshmen who unknowingly submit to clandestine rites of passage. We’ve devised all sorts of rites for membership that are both benign and dark.  The same is true of our faith

Yet unlike the above there is nothing dark, secretive or sinister about our way of initiation.  It is all about a person, about light, mission, faith, grace, a new identity in Christ and our salvation. It is baptism. As baptized we are made members of the Church along with Confirmation and Holy Eucharist. This Sunday’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord brings us back to the moment that Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan and submitted to the cleansing ritual of his cousin John but in early times it was a hurdle to get over.

Jesus, without sin and the most perfect of all human beings, enters the waters of purification from sin. Why? Was he with personal sin? In the Gospel, John states that “one mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.”  In other words John identifies that in the presence of this “mightier one” he is not worthy to even do the work of a slave. And so, we remember our Advent anticipation to prepare for this “mightier one.”

Here, the mighty one appears in Jesus and lowers himself to submit to the waters which identify that the one baptized is sinful.  But he isn’t with sin as we are. This is a moment that Our Lord, in his divine and human humility, more fully identifies not with his non-existent sin but with our very real sinfulness.  As God took on human nature and so transformed humanity to a higher level so too now in his baptism does Jesus become even more intimately identified with human sinfulness so that he might rise and redeem our flawed nature.  And by this ritual of water cleansing we are identified and anointed with Christ Jesus.  In the west we call it baptism; in the east it is named “chrismation.” Made like Christ.

As the Father, Son and Holy Spirit become present from the heavens to the earth in the Gospel, we hear and see that Jesus is the Word made flesh among us and that salvation is the work of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit all calling us to share in their divine life. Jesus is given an identity: “You are my beloved Son” speaks the Father as the gentle Spirit anoints Jesus for his mission on earth. 

But, today is about us as well. God sees humanity, his highest creation in this world, as valued and precious in his sight; as worth saving and not rejecting despite our weakness.  That salvation was God’s initiation for us and so we are humbled before the Creator.  Like Jesus, we are anointed in baptism and sent to carry the good news to our society and culture.

The signs of baptism are significant for us.  Like all sacraments and this is the first among them in our Christian lives, the words and signs of the ritual provide a visible reminder to us of what is taking place on an invisible spiritual level.  We probably won’t see doves descending or hear a voice from the heavens but through the signs of water, word, oil, fire, and the white garment we are forever marked as Christians in the world. 

Water cleanses from sin and opens the door to new life.  The oils of salvation and holy chrism anoint us to be like Christ as priest, prophet and king (servant) in the world.  The fire of the candle reminds us of the fire of change that the Spirit brings and the white garment identifies the state of our soul at that moment as the seeds of faith are planted in us.  Faith calls us to believe in what we cannot see through the signs of word and ritual in what we see and hear. It’s all incarnational as the invisible God became visible to us in Christ Jesus.

Yet, there is no magic in this ritual. We don’t become magically immune from sin. Our mission begins as we are transformed to be a new creation in Christ.  And that mission is first a call to our own conversion.  As John writes in the second reading today: “For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments.” Baptized and sent we begin first with ourselves it seems to me. How can we be effective witnesses to the gospel of Christ if we are not first changed ourselves?  If God, as Isaiah reminds us in the first reading, is mercy, generosity and forgiveness our conversion is assured when we seek him for all the right reasons. 

We are not Jesus but like Jesus, baptized in the name of the Trinity and anointed for service, the mission we share in is rooted in faith and trust in God.  The Second Vatican Council called all Christians regardless of place to transform society and culture.  As Blessed Pope Paul VI famously stated that the world, “responds more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi).

So, our Baptism has called us to walk the talk as it were.  Jesus has transformed culture through peaceful means.  Not with war, violence, fear or submission but with the power of love, mercy, forgiveness and hope.  There is our mission plan - to bring as a witness to Christ a peaceful transformation of the world around us.

While we may certainly feel at times like were shouting to the choir or to a blank wall our voice and most importantly our witness to the way of Christ is a greater force for change than what we on our own could devise. 

Cleansed, strengthened, and sent as initiated as members of the Church we move out in faith and hope confident that as Jesus was identified as “my beloved Son” by the Father, so too have we been named as children of this same God of love. 

The Eucharist is food for the baptized and initiated; those called and sent as the People of God, as disciples of Christ, into a world, much too dark and hostile these days, yet which longs for light and hope.


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 Feast)