13 January 2008, Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 Acts 10:34-38 Matthew 3:13-17

Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of Jesus. We might very well wonder, along with John the Baptist, why Jesus needed to be baptized.  The first answer to this is that Jesus in so doing was expressing his total solidarity with the human race, of which he was a member.  He identified with them, not as a sinner but as a fellow human being.   However, in order to understand what is happening at the River Jordan, we have to go far beyond seeing Jesus’ baptism as a matter of dealing with sinfulness. What is being really emphasized here is the positive element of Jesus being totally accepted and confirmed by his Father.  As he steps out of the water, the heavens open and the Spirit of God comes down on Jesus to fill him with all God’s fullness.  “This is my Son, the Beloved; in him I am deeply pleased.”

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew recreated the event surrounding the Baptism of the Lord Jesus. When Jesus came to be baptized, John the Baptist insisted that it was he who should be baptized by Jesus. For the Baptism of John was a rite of repentance and confession of sin. How could Jesus submit Himself to such a Baptism when He committed no sin?  Jesus’ submission to the Baptism of John was to demonstrate that He was a faithful Jew who obeyed the Law and the practices associated with good Jewish life.  “When Jesus had been baptized, just as He came up from the water, the heavens were opened to Him and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and alighted on Him.” There was a voice from heaven which said, ‘This is My Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’  Here the dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, the image of a dove is a symbol of love. The dove, the Holy Spirit, echoes the love of the Father for His only begotten Son Jesus.

Then, of course, like Jesus, our baptism brings with it a serious obligation to share our faith with others both by word and example.  We are called to be living witnesses of the Gospel, to be the salt of the earth, to be a city on a hill, a candle radiating light in the surrounding darkness.  We are called, in short, to be united with the others in our Christian community in the building up of God’s Kingdom. 

Jesus’ public life began with His Baptism by Saint John the Baptist in the Jordan. John preached ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.   The Baptism of Jesus is on His part the acceptance and inauguration of His mission as God’s suffering Servant. He allows himself to be numbered among sinners; He is already “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. The Father’s voice responds to the Son’s acceptance, proclaiming His entire delight in His Son. The Spirit whom Jesus possessed in fullness from His conception comes to “rest on Him”.

As a final reflection it would be useful for us today to reflect on the meaning of our own baptism and how it relates with that of Jesus. We often hear a very simplistic description of the effects of the Sacrament of Baptism as “taking away original sin and making us children of God”.   Baptism is not, as is true of all the sacraments, an isolated ritual.  It takes place in the context of our whole life.  Whether we are baptized as children or as adults, what primarily is happening is that we become incorporated, em-bodied, into the Christian community. We become – not passively, but actively – member of the Body of Christ.  It can never be something imposed on us against our will.  That is why, for adults, there is now a long process of initiation leading up to Baptism and, hopefully a further process of community support after the Baptism has taken place. That is why adult Baptism is now celebrated in the presence of the whole parish community and at the Easter Vigil. 

Through Baptism the Christian is sacramentally assimilated into Jesus, who in His own baptism anticipates His death and resurrection. The Christian must enter into this mystery of humble self-abasement and repentance, go down into the water with Jesus in order to rise with Him, be reborn of water and the Spirit so as to become the Father’s beloved son or daughter in the Christ and “walk in newness of life”.  We ask the grace that we may sincerely listen to his voice and live that voice in our life. Our obedience to the call makes us all happy and satisfied.

 

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