Today we conclude the Christmas season with the celebration of the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the account of which we just heard in our Gospel reading. We all understand baptism to be, of course, the entry into the Christian community of faith: through baptism, we become sons and daughters of God the Father, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. Through baptism, we enter into a covenant relationship with the Lord, the last of the covenants established by God with the human race. The promise that God has made to the human race in this covenant – the promise of salvation – is likewise given to us at baptism. The sacrament of baptism brings about the forgiveness of one’s sins and in it we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So if this is what happens when we are baptized, why did Jesus choose to be baptized? He was already the Son of God the Father. He was already in relationship with God. And he had no sins that needed to be forgiven. So what was his baptism all about? Even John was dumbfounded: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”
Everything Jesus does is for us: it is to teach us something, to serve as an example to us, to give us something or to help us in some way. And so it is with his baptism. Jesus chose to have his cousin John baptize him not because Jesus needed it or that he would benefit in some way from it, but rather for our benefit. Here is what Saint Maximus of Turin said about Jesus’ baptism: “Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water. For when the Savior is washed, all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages [that’s us]. Christ is the first to be baptized, then, so that Christians will follow after him with confidence.”
God of course created us with bodies and souls. And our Catholic faith is a sacramental faith; that is, it uses the physical things of this world for a spiritual purpose. In every sacrament, something spiritual is happening: we receive God’s gift of grace. But every sacrament uses physical things that God has created as a part of the ritual. So, for example, we use water to wash ourselves clean physically. In baptism, water takes on a spiritual purpose: in the waters of baptism, we are washed clean spiritually; i.e. our sins are forgiven in baptism. When Jesus was baptized, he consecrated or purified all water so that with it we might be washed clean spiritually. Of course, the priest or deacon first says a prayer over the water to bless it so that it might be used for baptism. But it’s not through my power or any priest’s or deacon’s power to purify this water; it is through God’s power that the water is purified for the baptism of human beings, and this initial purification of water can be traced back to Jesus’ own baptism.
So when we are baptized, we enter into a covenant relationship with the Lord, a covenant established by Jesus Christ between God and humanity. And in baptism, we receive for the first time the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, too, received the Holy Spirit at his baptism. But how could he receive the Holy Spirit if as one of the three persons of the Trinity he was already united with the Holy Spirit? In his baptism, Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit, which came down upon him under the appearance of a dove, as a representation of the beginning of his kingly reign. There are many parallels in our Gospel account of Jesus’ baptism with the anointing of both David and Solomon as kings of Israel. But as our first reading from Isaiah tells us, Jesus is not just the King of the Jews; he will redeem not only the Jews, but also has come to “bring forth justice to the nations.” Who are the nations? We are –the whole world. In his baptism, Jesus begins his reign as king to offer the promise of salvation to the whole world.
I’d like to acknowledge that all of this is a little theologically dense and I hope that you’ve been able to stay with me up to this point. What does all of this mean for us here and now in 2020? First, how about recognizing what the Lord has done for us in his own baptism and giving him thanks for it? Every time we make the sign of the cross, it is a reminder of our baptism and can serve as a reminder to give thanks to the Lord.
Second, Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry. Up to this point in his life, Jesus has been living a very ordinary and even hidden life living with Mary and Joseph up in Nazareth, working as a carpenter. But with his baptism, he leaves this hidden life behind and goes out into the world, proclaiming the good news of salvation, preaching, teaching, and healing. He begins his public ministry which of course culminates in his death on the Cross – the establishment of the last covenant between God and humanity and the redemption of the human race.
There is a parallel between Jesus’ own baptism and ours. Just as with Jesus’ baptism, he began to fulfill the mission His Father had given Him, our own baptisms represent the same thing. Of course, many of us – though not all of us – were baptized as infants and so our public ministry had to wait awhile for us to grow up and so on. But we received a mission from the Lord at our baptism all the same. The point is, at baptism we receive a mission from God which we are called to fulfill. I would say that this is a two-fold mission. One part of the mission is to strive to live like Christ, to strive to imitate Him and follow His example as best we can.
The other part of the mission is to participate in Jesus’ own mission. That does not mean of course that we have the responsibility of saving others. We are incapable of saving ourselves or anyone else, but fortunately that’s not what God expects of us. Only Jesus could do that, and he has already done it through his death and resurrection. Instead, God asks us to participate in Jesus’ work of redemption, by carrying on the work that Jesus has begun. What is that, you might ask. Well let’s take a quick look at our second reading from the Acts of the Apostles. In this reading, we find Peter speaking to a group of people gathered in the house of someone named Cornelius. Cornelius and his family were the first uncircumcised Gentile converts to Christianity. There was a great controversy in the earliest days of the Church that Gentiles first had to become Jews before they could become Christians. It was eventually determined that this was not necessary. And so the setting of our second reading – the baptism of these uncircumcised Gentiles – is significant. Peter is preaching to them about Jesus Christ and about what Jesus has done for all of us. In other words, he is proclaiming the Gospel or the good news of salvation to them.
That is what we are likewise called to do – preach the Gospel, spread the Gospel to others – to the whole world. What this looks like practically speaking will differ from person to person and will even differ for us at different stages of our lives. How I am called to proclaim the Gospel looks different than how you are called to proclaim the Gospel. For parents, it is passing on your faith to your children. Some people become catechists – they teach others about our Catholic faith, whether through faith formation, RCIA, preparing engaged couples for marriage, and so on. Some people, such as our FOCUS missionaries, are called to proclaim the Gospel in a very intentional way by developing relationships with college students and introducing them to a relationship with Jesus Christ or helping them to grow deeper in that relationship. It could mean inviting someone to join you at church. For all of us, it’s about proclaiming the Gospel through our actions, our example, how we live our lives. And, when the need arises, to share in words what our Catholic faith teaches us, especially when we are asked. This is an example of how we are to live out our own baptisms.
So we give thanks to the Lord for this gift of baptism, this gift of the faith, and we ask for the grace to be able to live out this faith and share it with others. And we give praise to the Lord for his glory as revealed by the voice of the Father at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”