09Jan The Baptism of the Lord

First Sunday in Ordinary Time
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.

Intercessions (Bidding Prayers)

We pray:
That we, followers of Jesus, may bring forth justice to others, seeing things through his eyes, and his spirit.
for the victims of violence, that you may heal their wounds.
for the perpetrators of violence, that you may extinguish the hatred in their hearts.
for ourselves, that we may love our country without hating its enemies.

Start of the Movement (John Walsh)

Last week the Feast of the Epiphany recalled the manifestation or showing forth of God in the person of Jesus Christ, before the gentile world. But rather strangely, in the Orthodox Churches of the east, it is not the Magi story but the Baptism of Christ which is central to the readings even as you heard it read just now. The reason for this is that the Eastern Churches, which always focused on the mystical aspect of the Christian faith, regarded the entire life of Christ as a whole series of epiphanies, or revelations of the divinity, of which Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan, by John, was the first and most important.

We begin to see the reason for this when we recall how Jesus, after his resurrection, appeared to his Apostles in the Upper Room, and told them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and then you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). So the primary function of the Apostles was to bear witness. And if we ask what witness, we find the answer in what St Peter demanded, when the Apostles met to choose a successor to Judas Iscariot, “You must choose someone, who has been with us the whole time that the Lord Jesus has been travelling round with us, someone who has been with us, right from the time of the baptism of John, until the day when Jesus was taken up from us, and he can act with us as a witness ” (Acts 1:21). So the starting point for the testimony of the Apostles, who were the special witnesses chosen by the Holy Spirit, was that event which we recall in the liturgy today, namely the Baptism of Jesus by John.

We may wonder why Jesus, who was absolutely sinless, submitted to this baptism by John, a baptism which was purely symbolic, a sign of the repentance which John preached, but not a sacrament. Jesus himself saw it as a compliance with the wishes of the Father. He humbled himself, and proclaimed himself as being one with sinful humanity, without however condoning its sins, or being in any way guilty of sin himself. When Jesus comes out of the water, we have the first revelation in scripture of the Blessed Trinity of persons in the one true God, the Son being baptised, the Holy Spirit descending on him in the form of a dove, the Father saying, “This is my beloved Son; with him I am well pleased.”
St John, in his first Letter stated, “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him, and he in God” (1 Jn 4:15). This should be a source of great consolation to us, because by our baptism we have acknowledged the divine sonship of Jesus, and so we have become temples of God’s Holy Spirit; we are set apart for the worship of God, and like the Apostles we too are commissioned to give witness to the continuing presence on earth of Christ, putting into effect his work of salvation.

Today it is difficult for us, who have, as a general rule, become members of the Church at infancy, to understand the joy which the oath of allegiance to God, taken at their baptism, brought to the adult converts to Christianity in those early days of the Church. For them this sacrament was the conscious and blessed beginning of what they called the “Way,” the road to God mapped out by Christ. Jesus, we say, was king, priest and prophet, and his first public act as prophet was his baptism.

Prophets had a habit of linking some striking symbolic actions with what they wanted people to learn. For example, Jeremiah carried a yoke on his shoulders to let Israel know it was in bondage. Isaiah never married to let Israel know how spiritually poor and barren she was. Jesus himself cursed the fig tree which being withered next day symbolised Jerusalem’s rejection of the salvation offered her. Jesus’ baptism also was a prophetic action, in that by it he was telling people that they were in need of conversion, and should turn to God once more, as John the Baptist was telling them.

Jesus’s baptism moreover was for Israel a sign of its repentance and salvation. And so likewise should our baptism be for all of us. If John came across to the people as a grim ascetic, threatening them with inexorable judgment, Jesus comes across as a giver of hope. John was the prophet of woe; Jesus the prophet of salvation.

His Baptism and Ours (Peter Briscoe)

When telling stories to children we are told that we must always keep the details familiar. The world of Cinderella or Snow White once it has been created in a particular way with its own familiar contours almost becomes part of the established world-view of the child. 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 away of reminding themselves of insights which only 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 anew 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.

The Lash Goes On (Liam Swords)

Helen is twenty-two but could pass for somebody in her mid to-late teens. She is pretty, healthy and fairly bristling with cheerfulness. She says she doesn’t know how the time flies. Which is somewhat surprising because Helen is a prisoner in a foreign jail, awaiting her trial on terrorist-related charges. Most of her fellow-prisoners are serving sentences for drug related crimes. Many of them are diagnosed as carriers of the deadly AIDS virus. Why Helen decided to embark on a career of terrorism, virtually certain to land her in prison, is almost beyond comprehension. She shows no sign of remorse for the killings and the injuries. She has no regrets. Even in her prison cell, her commitment to the cause is unwavering. Yet in every other way, she is like any other girl of her age. She is religious too, more than many of her contemporaries. She laughs easily and she cries easily too, especially when she sees others treated cruelly and unjustly. Her terrorist activities seem completely out of keeping with her nature.

There seems to be a tremendous proliferation of terrorist groups in the last two decades. Almost no part of the world is free of them. Almost no news-bulletin is without its gruesome coverage in word and pictures of the latest bomb attack. Politicians and churchmen quickly exhaust their vocabularies in expressing vehement condemnations. All so futile and frustrating. Many a peace-proclaiming modem state was born out of terrorism. Today’s statesmen were often yesterday’s terrorists.

“Glorious” revolutions were often little more than tyrannies exchanged.

Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot! /A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot. /Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again! /The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.

Violence breeds violence. Helen is the product of a culture that for far too long preached the sword If the words of anthems such as the Marseillaise or Amhran na bhFiann are anything to go by, our commitment to non-violence is steeped in ambiguity. Abbé Pierre recently requested the French government to change the words of the Marseillaise. The reply was a model of Sweet reasonableness It would be happy to do so when the church changed the words of the Psalms! Touché!

Too much of our religion is laced with the blood and guts language of war. “Onward Christian Soldiers!” we sing, with a gusto more congenial to the battlefield than to the altar. God’s blessing is invoked for our conquering armies and their dead are martyrised. The jingoism in Britain arising out of the Falklands war, should serve us all as a warning. The spirit of the crusades still lingers in our churches. Holy War is not just the preserve of Muslims.

Much as we would like to disclaim it, religion bears a large responsibility for the violence of our time, whether it be in Belfast, Beirut or Baghdad. While Christians retain a certain ambiguity on the subject of violence, they betray their Master, and will continue to fill their jails with people like Helen and her comrades-in-arms.

A Pattern Unfolding (Jack McArdle)

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.

John the Baptist had a 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.

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.

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 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, in a nonchalant way, “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.”

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