The Word for Sunday: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/011016.cfm
If you’ve ever pondered the question as to why Jesus was baptized you would be exactly in sync with the early Church which asked that same question. John preached a baptism of repentance from sin. If Jesus submitted to John’s baptism, he must have been with sin. Yet, if our claim that Jesus is divine is true, how could he be with sin? And, if he is without sin, why would he be baptized? So goes the issue round and round.
The Gospel passage from Luke this Sunday is not a great help in answering that question. Unlike the other accounts, it seems to be somewhat after the fact as a way to draw our attention more to the result after rather than the actual moment of baptism. Luke writes: “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying . . .” One could imagine that Jesus had simply slipped into the crowd or patiently stood in line with the others, was baptized by John, and followed out of the water blending into the masses while quietly walking away in prayer. Yet, we know there must be something far more significant here.
As we come to the end of this year’s Christmas celebrations our attention now turns to another scene of uncovering the person of Christ. The Magi last week reminded us of Jesus’ future mission open to the wider world beyond Israel, that of the Gentiles. Today’s Baptism of the Lord reminds us of the process through which the curtains were drawn open for the world to receive the long awaited Savior. Or as John says in the Gospel (Lk 3: 15ff) today: “The people were filled with anticipation . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Likewise, our first reading from Isaiah 40 says: “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together . . .” The curtains are open and the spotlight shifts from John to Jesus as John fades from the scene. Jesus is the One.
Yet, all this may be good for dramatic effect but it does not answer that burning question as to why Jesus was baptized. The appearance of the Holy Spirit who “descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove,” and the “voice” which came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son” may hold a key to the answer of that query.
It reveals the truth of who Jesus is and uncovers part of that mystery. He is indeed God from God and light from light as we state in our Creed yet he is also fully human. His sinless condition did not make baptism necessary for him but for our sake it did. In the act of submission to John’s baptism Jesus reveals to us not only who he is but in the same way who we are and what we are called to be. In being baptized our Lord took upon himself our sinful nature and joined himself to us in the full experience of human life. This great act of mercy for humanity is profound.
The other may be a more complex question - that of sin itself. Do we sin because we are human? Does the baptism of Jesus become necessary because we are inherently a sin-prone people? We casually say that “no one is perfect” so is that just the way things are for us? Do we uncomfortably put up with greed, lust, selfishness, violence, deception, pride, gluttony, killing and rampant evil because we are “only human?”
Jesus’ baptism show us that to be fully human we are called to a higher moral standard. We don’t sin because we are “just human.” We sin because we are weak. That original sin we speak of, first committed when humanity turned away from God through free choice, is washed away in baptism so the grace of the same Spirit which descended on Jesus at the Jordan may come on us. While baptism isn’t some sort of magic that will transform everything instantly it opens the door to faith and solidarity with Christ as Lord and savior.
Jesus showed us the better side of human nature and what direction our lives must turn to; what God’s intent is for us. That sin and selfishness, greed and pride, violence and hatred should not rule our world. Jesus’ own entrance into our history makes all that possible by the Gospel he revealed to us. His entrance on our stage is a new light, the brightest light to follow and emulate. Compassion, mercy, love, healing are virtues of strength not weakness. That God wishes solidarity with all of humanity and offers to send his Holy Spirit to all who seek it and live by it.
Our mission then is that of Christ himself and the Spirit received in baptism compels us outward to be missionaries of the Gospel of Christ himself.
During the weekly Sunday Angelus at St. Peter’s, Pope Francis stated the same reminder: “We Christians must do this: replace malice with innocence, replace power with love, replace pride with humility, and replace status with service. Being disciples of the Lord means . . . not assuming closed attitudes but rather proposing the Gospel to everyone; bearing witness by our lives that following Jesus makes us freer and more joyous.” (Angelus: 1/19/14).
In the celebration of the Holy Eucharist we are intimately joined to Christ as our Word and our food. Likewise we stand in solidarity with each other in forgiveness, love, support and our spiritual life. Here we are strengthened to go out and be truly human after the example of Jesus in the world of today.
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.
Who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
(Collect of Mass)