The Baptism of the Lord [C]
Isaiah 42:1-4,6-7 + Acts 10:34-38 + Luke 3:15-16,21-22
January 10, 2016
“ ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’ ”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if God the Father spoke those words about you? “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” Well, this final day of the Christmas Season helps us realize that that’s exactly what God the Father says to you—every day—beginning on the day of your baptism.
It’s not a newsflash that “childhood” is one the major themes of the Church’s season of Christmas. One of the most famous Christmas hymns asks the question: “What Child is this / Who laid to rest / on Mary’s lap / is sleeping?” What child is this? Who is this child? How can a helpless infant possibly be the same God who fashioned the stars, the galaxies, the black holes and everything else in the physical universe? How can a little child possibly be the eternal God? Christmas is full of such paradoxes, or as the Church tends to call them, sacred mysteries.
But the mystery of this particular Christ Child is not the only mystery about childhood that the Church ponders during the Christmas Season. This season also focuses our attention on you and me being called to adoption as God’s very own children. For example, last Sunday on the feast of the Holy Family, the Second Reading came from St. John’s first epistle. In that passage St. John spoke about this divine adoption, proclaiming: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. And so we are. … Beloved, we are God’s children now.”
That’s a truly awesome mystery that John’s proclaiming, but it’s also a profound paradox. It’s hard enough to imagine how a tiny baby could be the All-Powerful Lord of Hosts. But it’s even harder to imagine how a sinner such as you or me could become, not just a saint, but a very child of God the Father! But “so we are”, St. John proclaims: “we are God’s children now”.
God’s adoption of us isn’t just some act of pity on God’s part, like the way that you might give shelter and food to a stray animal for a few days, before figuring out whom to pass it on to. When you pass on, at the hour of your death, you pass on to God Himself: if, that is, you’re faithful during your earthly days to the promises of your baptism.
Christian baptism is the key to being God’s children now, and—we pray—forever in Heaven. But our own baptism is rooted in the sacred mystery of the Baptism of the Lord, the sacred mystery that the Church is celebrating on this final day of Christmastide. Reflect on the mystery of the Lord Jesus’ baptism in order to reflect more deeply on your and my baptism.
+ + +
The initial question that arises when pondering the Baptism of the Lord is “Why?” Why was Jesus even baptized in the first place? Baptism is for the washing away of sins, and Jesus of course never had any sins on His soul. So why did Jesus submit Himself to St. John the Baptist and receive John’s baptism?
One significant reason is to mark a beginning. Jesus wants His followers to link in their hearts the ritual of baptism with the beginning of a new stage of life. For Jesus Himself, His baptism was the beginning of what we call His “public ministry”. The first thirty years of Jesus’ life had been lived largely in secret, and to this day we have very few records of what Jesus said and did, and what happened to Jesus, during the first thirty years of His life. Those first thirty years were, by and large, very ordinary.
But now something extraordinary was beginning, and the three years of Jesus’ public ministry that began with His Baptism were leading up to the events of Holy Week. All that Jesus fulfilled in the sacred three days from the evening of Holy Thursday to the morning of Easter Sunday began here, at the River Jordan, when St. John baptized Him. In fact, the new beginning marked by Jesus’ Baptism is so significant that the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes a link between Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of Creation as described in the Book of Genesis. The Catechism states that “[t]he Spirit who had hovered over the waters of the first creation descended then on [Jesus at the River Jordan] as a prelude of the new creation, and the Father revealed Jesus as His ‘beloved Son.’” In other words, the work that Jesus began on the day of His Baptism was the work of a “new creation”, also called the work of redemption and sanctification.
Likewise, when you were baptized, there was also a new beginning in your life. In fact, what began on the day of your baptism is so important that every year, you should celebrate the day of your baptism with as much, if not more, gusto than how you celebrate your birthday. Personally, I’m like most people in that as I get older, I’m less and less interested in celebrating my birthday. Just last month I had a birthday, and I’m now less than two years from the half-century mark, so I’m all for any celebration that lets me forget how old I’m getting. Each year, then, as I celebrate my birthday less and less, I celebrate my baptismal anniversary more and more. Celebrating my baptismal anniversary helps me look forward to the future with hope, because while the human body may grow weaker, aching and groaning more every year that we roll “over the hill”, the human spirit is meant always only to increase, through Christ our Lord.
What the day of your own baptism marks, then, is the day that God adopted you, and gifted you in many ways in order to set you on that path of an ever-increasing share in God’s life, leading ultimately into His very Sight in Heaven.
+ + +
How did God gift you at the moment of your baptism? What changes happened inside you when the waters of baptism flowed over you, and the words “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” were spoken over you?
There were three changes that occurred within you at your baptism. The power of Jesus’ divinity is the source of all three of these changes. Although the latter two changes that happened within you at your baptism are more important than the first, the first is more foundational, in the sense that a house is built upon its foundation. Today focus on this foundation on which the more powerful changes build.
The first change that happened inside you at the moment of your baptism was destruction. What was destroyed? The Catechism states that “[b]y Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin.” Most Christians know this, but what’s less understood is how this destructive power flows from Jesus.
To understand how destructive power flows from Jesus, we have to reflect on the connection between Jesus’ Baptism, and Jesus’ Crucifixion. They’re not just events at the end of a spectrum: the beginning and end of His saving ministry. Instead, Jesus’ Baptism is a mystery that foreshadows His Passion and Death. Jesus Himself linked baptism and death. In the tenth chapter of Mark, Jesus “began to tell [the twelve] what was to happen to Him, saying, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and spit upon Him, and scourge Him, and kill Him; and after three days He will rise”. Amazingly, two of the densest apostles, James and John, immediately asked Jesus to grant them, as they put it: “‘to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory’”. But how did Jesus reply to their favor-seeking? Jesus explained to James and John, “‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’” That day as Jesus headed to Jerusalem with the twelve Apostles, He taught the Twelve that to be baptized means to enter into Jesus’ own Passion and Death, so as to be able to share in His Risen life. But it wasn’t only those twelve apostle who learned this lesson.
The Apostle Paul never walked with Jesus on earth like the original twelve Apostles. He only became an apostle after Jesus’ Ascension to Heaven, and in fact, after he had persecuted many of Jesus’ followers. But once the light of the Gospel took away His blindness, the Apostle Paul also understood that link between the Baptism of Jesus and Jesus’ Passion and Death. In fact, St. Paul taught this truth to the Romans in the epistle he sent them. In chapter 6 of Romans St. Paul asks them: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
+ + +
So Baptism is a share in the death of Jesus. When you and I were baptized, “[w]e were buried therefore with [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
That’s an interesting phrase: to “walk in newness of life”. It gives an important clue about what the life of a faithful Christian looks like. It clues us into some very important truths about how your having been baptized is meant to shape your daily life. No matter whether you were baptized in 2015, or 1985, or 1935, or even earlier, your having been baptized shapes your daily life every day until the hour of your death. To see how this is, let me back up and summarize very briefly the other changes that happen to a person when he or she is baptized.
I already mentioned that the first change that happens to a person when he’s baptized is the destruction of all sin, and all punishment due to sin. This power of Baptism to destroy is, we could say, a negative effect. But the other changes that happen at Baptism are positive, adding to the human soul, or as the Catechism puts it, they are a “new birth in the Holy Spirit.” At the moment of baptism, the “Most Holy Trinity gives the baptized [person] sanctifying grace”, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
But it’s important to remember the setting—the stage—on which the drama of Christian Baptism takes place: that is, adoption into Christ. This is the third change that happens at the moment of Baptism. In Baptism God the Father adopts the newly baptized person, not so much as a brother or sister to Jesus, but as a “member of Christ”: that is, as one of the many members of the Mystical Body of Christ. In other words, when you were baptized, it’s not so much that God the Father gained an additional child, in addition to God the Son. Rather, you were adopted as one member of the Mystical Body of Christ, who is the eternal Son of God. This setting, stage or context within which God gives us gifts at our baptism is important so that we can understand that phrase that St. Paul wrote, that “[w]e were buried… with [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that… we too might walk in newness of life.”
What is St. Paul saying about your daily life as a Christian when he speaks of walking in newness of life? This is easier to imagine if you consider someone baptized as an adult. What is different about the way that adult walks through life before baptism, and the way that he or she walks through life after baptism? The answer is that after baptism, the Christian walks through life by means of death. But what does that mean for you in your daily life, if by virtue of your baptism you’re meant to walk through life by means of death?
One way of putting it is that your life is not about your self. Your life as a Christian is about God and your neighbor, and the living of the Christian life means loving God and loving your neighbor, and living for God and living for your neighbor. This is instead of rooting your life in your love of your self, and living for the good of your self and your comfort: in a word, the Christian life is the process of becoming “selfless”.
To live a “selfless” life is what it means to live your daily life, through the strength of your baptism, by means of death. If this seems abstract, the saints of our own day and time give us clear pictures of what this looks like. Take Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, soon to be canonized a saint. If you’ve never watched a documentary of her life in Calcutta, watch one. Watch Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta, loving God at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament each morning and at other moments throughout the day, and loving the “poorest of the poor”, as she called her neighbors, tending to them throughout the day by means of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Saints like Mother Teresa are easy to admire, but how does the average Christian go about opening his life to God’s grace more selflessly, so as to be more of a saint in daily life? In addition to the foundation of daily prayer—honest prayer with God each and every day—one simple question that offers a start is to ask yourself whether you can name from memory the seven corporal works of mercy and the seven spiritual works of mercy? If not, find them listed in the Catechism, write them down on a sheet of paper, and pray over this list of fourteen simple actions. If you tend to pray in the morning, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you in focusing during that day on one particular corporal or spiritual work of mercy. If you pray before going to sleep, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you the following day in doing the same.
Albert Einstein once said that genius equals 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Something similar is true of holiness. In the case of holiness, God the Holy Spirit offers us the inspiration. Your work after accepting that grace from the Holy Spirit is the 99% of perspiration through acts of love for God, and acts of love for your neighbor, dying to your self so as to live completely within the Mystical Body of Christ.
 1 John 3:1-2.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church 1224, citing Matthew 3:16-17.
 Ibid., 1263, referring to the Council of Florence (1439): DS 1316.
 Mark 10:32-33,37,38. Jesus here, obviously, links His Passion and Death not only with the Sacrament of Baptism, but also with the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
 Romans 6:3-4.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church 1262, referring to Acts 2:38 and John 3:5.
 Ibid., 1266.
 Ibid., 1265.