The Baptism of the Lord
Like many of you, the ferry plays a big role in my life. I don’t ride it every day, but I do every week. Often I like to stay in my car, but to do so I have to make myself comfortable. I lower the seat back, slide it backward, lay back and (this time of year) cover myself with my car blanket. No matter what we are doing I think we all like to be comfortable. So there is something inviting about the opening words of our first reading from the book of Isaiah. It quotes God speaking to the prophet telling him to comfort, to give comfort to God’s people. The broad meaning of word encompasses relief, consolation and strength.
The reason that the people were in need of being comforted was that many of them had been removed from their homeland by their conquerors. Jerusalem and the temple were being destroyed. While the message that was to bring comfort had many elements, it was essentially about being delivered from guilt by God who was going to come among them in a new and powerful way. It is interesting to note that as the message of comfort is spelled out it speaks of the coming of the Lord with power and a strong arm, but it also describes the Lord as a shepherd, one who feeds, one who gathers in His arms and carries His people in his bosom.
The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist marks an important manifestation of the presence of God in fulfillment of that ancient promise. The baptism in the Jordan marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. With the exception of one incident, Jesus’ being lost in the temple at age 12, we know nothing of Jesus’ youth or work as an adult. The scriptures tell us He was a carpenter. At any rate they were years in which His divinity, His manifestation of God’s presence was hidden. But with the baptism that changed. And the event itself included a symbolic representation of the presence of Holy Spirit and most importantly the voice, the declaration of the heavenly Father that this Jesus was His beloved Son in whom He was well pleased.
The ministry of Jesus proceeded from there. It is a ministry described by St. Paul today in our second reading as “saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age.” And further Paul noted how Jesus gave Himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and cleanse for himself a people as His own, eager to do what is good.” God has great expectations of us. And finally, St. Paul noted that He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This is exactly what John the Baptist meant when He spoke of the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. We were initiated into this beautiful life through our own baptism, our bath of rebirth that made us children of God and members of His Church.
So why was Jesus, God in human flesh, He who was like us in all things except sin…why was He baptized? This event that marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry went to the heart of the purpose of His ministry. Jesus had no need of John’s baptism of repentance. But He wanted to affirm His decision to be present among us, to be one with us, even though we are sinners. Jesus thus laid the groundwork for one day saving us from our sins. Additionally, His stepping into John’s baptism, as it were, made holy the water that would one day be used for His new baptism.
As I noted we all entered into the life described by St. Paul when we were baptized. It is a life which must be constantly maintained, formed and informed by grace and truth. It is a life that must be continually witnessed in our interactions with others. Daily we seek to encounter the Lord of power and a strong arm. The power of the Lord, the power of the truth, however can sometimes be challenging. It may accuse us of wrongdoing and calls us to change. That strong arm of the Lord which is the command to extend charity toward others takes commitment and work. So at the same time we must seek out the shepherd who feeds us with Eucharist. It is the shepherd that gathers us in His arms in reconciliation when we start to wander and are in trouble. In our daily prayer and reflection we seek the intimacy of an embrace at the bosom of the shepherd who is Jesus Christ.
Celebrating baptisms is one of my most joyful duties. But it is one that carries great responsibility as well. I have the joy of knowing that I am facilitating Jesus’ reaching out to wash someone’s sins away and pour the new life of the Holy Spirit into them, making them God’s children and new members of His Church, our spiritual family. But I am reminded of how important it is that as adults they have been prepared for the commitment to live their new life. With infants I am reminded of the Church’s charge to me that if I baptize I must have a founded hope that the child will be raised in the Catholic Faith. This is dependent on the parents. And throughout the baptismal ritual there are questions, gestures and directions that remind parents of their responsibility.
I noted that the new life transmitted in baptism needs to be maintained. And our baptismal commitment, perhaps first made by our parents, should be renewed now and then. Renewal of baptismal promises is part of the ritual for the sacrament of confirmation. And in every Easter Mass as a congregation we renew our baptismal promises. But in every Mass, especially when we come forward to receive Holy Communion we are renewing our baptism. Our Amen at Communion says: “Yes Lord, I know that you have saved me from my sins. You have given me new life and now you nourish me so that I can better live that life. And that should make us very comfortable in heart and mind and soul.