Sunday, January 8th, 2012. The Baptism of the Lord
Is 42:1-4, 6-7. A servant of God, a chosen one, will courageously serve God and help others to salvation – like Jesus, this servant “fulfils all righteousness.”
Acts 10:34-38. The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan was an “anointing with the Holy Spirit” after which he went about doing good. Baptism gives us, too, the power to do good.
Mt 3:13-17. Although baptised by John, Jesus was not personally a sinner. His mission was to show whatever sinful man had to do in order to be restored to friendship with God.
Baptism as Reminder
When telling stories to children we are told that we must always keep the details familiar. Once it has been created in a particular way with its own familiar contours, the world of Cinderella or Snow White almost becomes part of the child’s established world-view. It annoys or disturbs the child if the story is told in an unfamiliar way. Quite often when I’ve tried telling old familiar bed-time stories to children I have had the experience of being “corrected” because I deviated from telling the story “the right way,” that is the way the child has already heard it. Usually the child proceeded to tell me the story properly (all the while displaying and ill concealed patronising patience with this silly elder who couldn’t remember a simple story.)
As we grow older of course we seek variations on the old familiar patterns. We grow to learn that the same stories can be told from different points of view. We get to know that a simple thing like telling our own story is not so simple after all. New experiences, the depths of joy or profound suffering, may reveal to us parts of ourselves that had lain hidden. In the light of new experience we may not only tell our own story from a different perspective we may realise that we would have to begin in at an entirely new place.
And so it was for the early Church as they retold their story in the story of Jesus. From one clear perspective their story began after Easter with the revelation of the risen Lord but above all with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Their experience of the Spirit was the gift of the risen lord but as they began to tell the story of this Spirit in their lives they inevitably had to begin to tell the story of Jesus. As the One through whom the Spirit had come to them they began to rediscover the Spirit in the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry as well as in that of the post-Easter Church.
Just as their own story had begun with the gift of the Spirit, so they began the story of Jesus with his anointing with the Spirit. The gospel story that unfolded was not a biography of the entire life of Jesus but the story of his ministry as that of the Son and Servant of God empowered with the Spirit. It was a ministry exercised no only in the power of the Spirit but also in the humility of the servant. As the One anointed with the Spirit he “went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”
However, the powerful and authoritative ministry of Jesus not only brought healing and grace to many but it also provoked criticism, hostility and rejection. His exorcisms brought healing and peace to many but also led to charges of being in league with the devil (Mk.3:20ff.) Towards the end of the ministry Jesus attacks the corruption of the temple and this provokes the challenge – “By what authority do you do these things?” (Mk.11:28.) Jesus answers by means of a counter-question: “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?” This counter-question was not intended as a way of avoiding the issue. Jesus did mean to link his authority to the baptism of John. It has been from the moment of his baptism that his authoritative ministry had begun.
When the first Christians began the story of Jesus with his baptism it was a way of reminding themselves of insights that emerged in the course of time and under the influence of the guiding Spirit promised by Jesus (Jn 16:13-14.) It was a way of declaring that the authority of Jesus is the authority of the Spirit of God, the same power that these first Christian story tellers also experienced in their own lives. If this story was told to establish that the Spirit was at the origin of Jesus’ ministry it was also told to establish the identity of this Spirit-anointed One. This one who exercises the messianic ministry is the Son on whom the Father bestows the Spirit and thereby reveals his identity as Son.
When Matthew came to retell the familiar gospel story he did not begin it in the same way or at the same point as his predecessors. Like his predecessors he did begin by setting out to reveal the identity of Jesus as the Son of God, but he achieved this through the medium of his Infancy narratives. The further revelation that Jesus is Son of God which occurs at the moment of baptism, is not for Matthew the revelation of something new but the revelation of its significance for Jesus’ mission and ministry which is about to begin.
It may be that this story was retold and rewritten in the early Church because it became a model for what occurred in the baptism practised by the Church. It was a reminder that all the baptised are given a share in Jesus’ sonship of the Father through the gift of the Spirit. In Matthew it has become a story that does not mark the beginning of a life or even a new identity but the beginning of a ministry. It is a challenge to all the baptised to realise that the new identity they receive at baptism calls them to allow the Spirit of Christ to be active in their lives. They may have received a new identity but it is not so much a status to be possessed as a vocation to a life like that of the Servant of God – a life dedicated to doing good, to establishing justice, bringing freedom to the oppressed and healing to the afflicted.
His Baptism and Ours
Today marks the beginning of the mission of Jesus. On a human level it may seem strange that he had not done anything of great significance over the previous thirty years. I will share some thoughts on that point later on in this reflection. This day was day for him. It is clearly implied that he had come to the Jordan in obedience to a word from the Father. His explanation to John is inadequate, but John was enough of a prophet to obey without always understanding. The action of John, and the purpose of Jesus coming there was clearly confirmed by both the Father and the Spirit.
I have had the privilege of leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land on several occasions. One of the highlights of the trip was the ceremony of total immersion in the river Jordan, when each person renewed the promises of baptism. It was a moving time, and it was easy to imagine the Spirit descending, and the Father confirming each of us as his son or daughter. Many of those who travelled with us over the years still speak of that moment with great emotion, and with special remembrance.
In Matthew’s account, John the Baptist proclaiming the coming of the Messiah prefaces today’s gospel, and it is followed by Jesus encountering Satan in the desert. There is a definite pattern to all of this. The Spirit has shown John who Jesus was and, once the Spirit had come upon Jesus, Satan is waiting his chance to test that Spirit. One of the greatest gifts we receive from what Jesus achieved is that, with the Spirit within, we can face up to any evil spirit we meet on the road of life. John the evangelist writes in one of his letters, “little children, there is a power within you that is greater than any evil power you may meet on the road of life.”
John the Baptist had that wonderful gift of humility. He knew his place before his God. When some people asked him if he were the Messiah, he emphatically denied any such claim. When Jesus came to him to be baptised, he was shocked, and he had no doubt that it was Jesus who should be baptising him. However, without understanding, once Jesus said that this was how he wanted things to be, John had the necessary humility to obey, and to bow to a higher authority. Original sin continues to show itself in endless forms, each of which is but another attempt to play God, to do things my way. John the Baptist was an extraordinary humble man. No wonder Jesus said, at a later date, “There has not been born of woman a greater prophet than John the Baptist.”
The baptism of Jesus is an extraordinary moment in our story of salvation. Not only did Jesus join us in our sinfulness, but the Father and the Spirit are seen and heard to be there with him. The language of the gospel may appear so simple, when we are told that “the heavens were opened,” but considering the banishment incurred through original sin, it is indeed a powerful statement. Later on, when Jesus will have completed his journey on Calvary, we are told that “the veil of the Temple was rent in two.” For the first time, we were free to enter into the Holy of Holies. Today’s gospel is the beginning of a journey, which, through our own baptism, each of us is asked to travel.
Response: The church calendar is marked with special and specific holy days, such as Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost. It is only when I begin to reflect on what really happened, and I begin to get into the heart of the matter, that I begin to see the importance of today, when we celebrate the baptism of the Lord. It is a truly significant feast day, and a cause for celebration. It is evident that our own baptism marks the beginning of our own personal Christian journey. In a way it marks our common birthday.
I said earlier that there is an obvious pattern in the unfolding of the journey of Jesus. He told us that, if we follow him, we will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. There is nothing automatic about being a Christian. It involves personal decisions, decisions that need to be constantly renewed. When a baby is born, that fact is registered in the records of the state, and a certificate is available to show the date and the place of birth, together with the name of one or both parents. If the baby is put up for adoption, the natural mother is allowed several months to retain the option of changing her mind about her decision. If her decision is unchanged, she signs the adoption papers, and the baby becomes a member of a new family, with different parents, and a different surname. The adopting parents go through a thorough scrutiny to ensure their suitability, before the baby is entrusted to their care. Baptism is our ceremony of adoption. It doesn’t make us children of God, because that is already a fact through our creation. Just as the natural mother normally does not abandon her baby, but ensures it is given security and a sense of belonging, so we are registered as members of the Christian community, and are given our place within the Body of Christ, which we call church. As I said, the natural mother is given plenty of time before she finally decides that this is what she wants to do. In our case, however, we are the ones who are given the time, and we are the ones who must decide for ourselves if we really do want to belong to this family, which we call Christian, or followers of Christ. Sooner or later, it is up to me to sign my own certificate.
It is important that each of us should have a sense of purpose and pattern to our Christian living. When I set out on a journey it is necessary to have a definite idea of where I intend going, and the destination at the end of the journey. Signposts point the way; they do not compel me to travel that way. Have you ever come across a signpost that has been deliberately turned in the wrong direction by someone with a perverted sense of humour? As a Christian, I have clear and definite signposts, and I always have the option of following them or not. Sometimes, because of road works, I encounter a detour. When I follow the detour, my whole attention is given to every sign, until I get back on the road on which I wish to travel. In following my Christian vocation it is vital that I maintain a constant reflection on where I am going, why I am going in that direction, and that I have a definite pattern to my journey.
Many of us carry some form of personal identification, membership cards, or work-place nametags. Get a copy of your baptism certificate, which can easily be obtained from the church in which you were baptised. Put it in your wallet or in your handbag, and carry it on your person. Let it be a constant reminder, and let it evoke a whole new yes every time you see it.
You can renew your baptismal vows any day you wish. This could easily be part of your prayer life, from time to time. The words or formula don’t matter. Some simple statement like the following would be quite sufficient: “Lord Jesus, Saviour, I want to belong to you, to be part of the family of God, and to live according to the rules of your kingdom. I renew the commitment of my baptism, and I ask for the grace to live out my Christian life.”
A friend of mine vouches for the truth of the following incident. He was travelling down the country one day. His journey brought him along some by-roads, where the signposts were few and far between. After a while, he was unsure if he was on the right road, so he decided to ask the first person he saw. Eventually he came across a farmer driving his cows home for milking. He stopped the car, and asked him if he was on the right road to somewhere, just to give the place a name. The farmer told him that he certainly was on the right road. My friend expressed his thanks, and was about to move forward when the farmer added, nonchalantly, “You’re on the right road, but you’re going in the wrong direction!’
First Reading: Book of Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
Second Reading: Acts of the Apostles 10:34-38
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ-he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom am well pleased.”