13 January 2008, Baptism of the Lord

With the feast of Our Lord’s Baptism today Christmas season comes to an official close. The whole season was a commemoration and a celebration of God’s self revelation to humankind through Jesus. In Bethlehem it was to the lowly and humble shepherds that Christ made Himself known. Simplicity, humility, innocence and powerlessness are the qualities that made these shepherds deserve the privilege of meeting Christ face to face. The message for us is that we too will see Christ face to face if we are like them – simple, humble and innocent.

 

Epiphany on the other hand was Christ’s revelation to the non-poor. Christ excludes no one. Christ rejects no one. Christ forgets no one. No one is outside the pale of those who are called to salvation. Indeed call to salvation in Christ is universal. It transcends caste, creed, colour, culture, community, class and country of origin. Christ indeed came as a poor child born of poor parents in the poverty of the manger. But He has place in His heart for the non-poor as well. The three wise men may not in fact have been kings as some tradition implies. But they were certainly men of means, who could afford to travel long distances in order to find the Child of Bethlehem. Also they were certainly in a position to bring costly gifts to the Child. Their being non-poor was certainly not a handicap in their search for the Child. Christ does not hate wealth. He has no antipathy towards the rich and the privileged. For Him what is important is not whether one is rich, but how one became rich and what one does with one’s riches. These wise men, though rich, were men who were on a sincere spiritual search. They were on a search for wisdom of God. They were on a search for salvation. They were on a search for Christ. And Christ lets them find Him.

And now at His Baptism in the Jordan, Christ reveals Himself to a third category of People, namely, the repentant sinners. If Christmas was the feast of God’s self revelation to the Jews, and Epiphany was God’s self revelation to the gentiles, now, the Baptism of Jesus is God’s self revelation to the sinful humanity, Jews and gentiles alike, notwithstanding whether one is rich or poor, educated or illiterate, high caste or low caste. God makes no distinctions. He comes to save everyone.

Three important points in today’s feast merit close attention: first, the reference to the “heavens opening”; second, the Spirit of God descending and hovering over Jesus in the form of a dove; and third, the voice from heaven addressing Jesus and saying: “You are my Son; my only beloved one; in you I am well pleased”. We need to understand that what the evangelists narrate here is a mystical experience that Jesus felt deep within His soul at the crucial turning point of His life. As such, these descriptions of the Synoptic Gospels should not be taken literally, as if there was actually a dove over the head of Jesus and as if there was actually a voice booming across the horizon for all to hear. In mystical literature there are what are called visions and locutions. These narratives refer to such mystical phenomena which are experienced deep in the heart and are essentially inexpressible except in some sort of symbolic language. What must have happened is that Jesus who has been “growing in age, wisdom and grace” in Nazareth for thirty long, uneventful and unexciting years of simple family life of a poor village carpenter, has come to a point when He can no longer contain the irresistible inner urge to leave His home, His father’s house and His near ones and go. Go where? Go where His Father would lead Him. He goes to the Jordan because everyone went to John the Baptist at the Jordan. And everyone got himself baptized by John. Particularly the sinners, the broken ones, the wounded, the weak and the weary, the riffraff of Jewish society, the last, the least, and the lost, the sheep without a shepherd, harassed and worried, the lost sheep of Israel, the anawim. It is for these people that Jesus had come to the earth. It is to preach the Good News of His Father’s love to these people that He had been sent. The mystery of the Incarnation was the mystery of God emptying Himself in order to identify Himself totally with this section of humanity. That is why there is now an irresistible pull in the heart of Jesus towards Jordan where the broken, bleeding, battered and bruised humanity is gathered to listen to John and to be baptized by him. Jesus wishes to identify Himself with these people. He wishes to be baptized by John just like them.

And at that solemn moment of His kenosis, His Father intervenes mysteriously and reveals His true identity as the Son and the Servant. Heavens opening indicates that it was a moment of God’s powerful intervention in human history and in the life of His Son. It was a kairos moment, a moment of tremendous outpouring of grace and spiritual power, a moment of outpouring of the Holy Spirit, coming in the form of dove. The dove is a symbol of salvation, of peace and of prosperity. The Gospel narrative makes it clear that with this turning point in the life of Jesus a wholly new and glorious chapter is being inaugurated in human history, where perpetual peace and prosperity would reign because of the salvation wrought by God’s Son. The word: “You are my Son, my only beloved one, in you I am well pleased” are a combination of two texts from the Hebrew Scriptures: one from Psalm 2 where reference is clearly to the Promised One, the Messiah who would come to save Israel; and the other Isaiah 42, the famous song of the Suffering Servant, also a reference to the Messiah. What these words really mean is that even as the Father reveals the true identity of Jesus as His Only Beloved Son, He makes sit abundantly clear that Jesus has to live His Sonship and fulfill His Messianic Mission by being a Suffering Servant. At the very moment that His high position as the Son is revealed it is also made clear that His mission would inevitably lead Him to insults, humiliations, rejection, torture and painful death.

What do we learn from this? What Jesus experienced at the Baptism in the Jordan is meant to be shared by all His disciples, by every Christian. God in and through Jesus says to each one of us: “You are my Son. You are my daughter. My only beloved son or daughter. In you I am well pleased”. But at the same time we must understand that like Jesus we too if we are to make full claim of our sonship and daughterhood, we would have to share in His sufferings and cross. There is no other way except the way of the cross. To be Christian is to live the paschal mystery of death and resurrection in daily life. So we remember Christ’s words: “If you wish to be my disciple, deny yourself; take up your cross daily and follow me.” And again: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it will not bear much fruit”. And again: “Be rooted in me so that you may bear fruit and fruit abundantly”

Today’s feast must remind us of our own baptism. Most of us were infants when we were baptized and we did not know what was happening to us. Someone else made baptismal promises in our name and on our behalf. But then on several occasions in our adult life we have had opportunities to renew those baptismal promises as our own personal pledge. What those promises boil down to is this: To be rooted in Christ by fully sharing in His paschal mystery of death and resurrection in the ordinary circumstances of our daily life and thus to be abundantly fruitful for the Kingdom of God wherever we are placed and in whatever way or condition of life. Some of us are poor, powerless and simple. Some of us are sophisticated, privileged and enjoying status in society. Whatever be the condition of our life, Christ comes to us in our actual situation. He reveals Himself to us provided we, like the shepherds are sincere and simple, like the wise men, open and searching and like the repentant sinners at the Jordan hungering and thirsting for salvation.

 

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