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Reflections for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. He says that at his Baptism in the Jordan, Christ reveals himself to repentant sinners.

(Is 40:1-5, 9-11; Ti 2:11-14, 3:4-7; Lk 3:15-16, 21-22)

Introduction: The Baptism of the Lord is the great event celebrated by the Eastern churches on the feast of Epiphany because it is the occasion of the first public revelation of all the Three Persons in the Holy Trinity, and the official revelation of Jesus as the Son of God to the world by God the Father.  Hence, it is described by all four Gospels. It marks the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. The Christmas season, celebrating the Self-revelation of God through Jesus, comes to an end with the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. Christmas is the feast of God’s Self-revelation to the Jews, and Epiphany celebrates God’s Self-revelation to the Gentiles. At his Baptism in the Jordan, Christ reveals himself to repentant sinners. The liturgical season of Christmas comes to a conclusion this Sunday with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.  

Homily starter anecdote: #1: Leaders who identified with their people:  The film Gandhi is a three-hour epic, depicting the life of Mahatma Gandhi in India. In order to lead the oppressed people of India to freedom from British rule, Gandhi adopted non-violent means such as fasting from food, vigils of prayer, peaceful marches, protests and civil disobedience. One of the reasons why Gandhi put on a loincloth and fasted from food, almost to the point of death, was to show solidarity with the Indian people, identifying with them in their physical sufferings. This finally brought independence to India. Rev. Martin Luther King, too, identified with his enslaved and maltreated people and became the voice of the voiceless in the name of God. Consequently, he was maligned, beaten, jailed, and assassinated while he preached peace, justice and non-violence on behalf of the downtrodden Afro-Americans in the U. S.  His heroic example definitely demonstrates Christian living for tens of millions of the poor and alienated Afro- Americans in the U.S. and the oppressed millions worldwide. To better appreciate his struggles against the sins of our culture, particularly of our "Christian" clergy, you are invited to read Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail” readily available on the internet (http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html). Jesus’ baptism, as described in today’s Gospel, was his identification with God’s chosen people who became aware of their sinful lives and need for God’s forgiveness. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/).

Exegesis: Origin of baptism: Neither John nor Jesus invented baptism.  It had been practiced for centuries among the Jews as a ritual equivalent to our Confession. Until the fall of the Temple in 70 AD, it was common for Jewish people to use a special pool called a Mikveh -- literally a "collection of water" – as a means of spiritual cleansing, to remove spiritual impurity and sin.  Men took this bath weekly on the eve of the Sabbath; women, monthly.  Converts were also expected to take this bath before entering Judaism.  The Orthodox Jews still retain the rite. John preached that such a bath was a necessary preparation for the cataclysm that would be wrought by the coming Messiah.  Jesus transformed this continuing ritual into the one single, definitive act by which we begin our life of Faith.  In effect, He fused His Divine Essence with the water and the ceremony.

A couple of questions: 1) Why did Jesus, the sinless Son of God, receive the "baptism of repentance" meant for sinners?  2) Why did Jesus wait for thirty years to begin his public ministry?  The strange answer for the first question given by the apocryphal book, The Gospel according to the Hebrews, is that Jesus received the baptism of John to please his mother and relatives.  In this humble submission, we see a foreshadowing of the “baptism” of his bloody death upon the cross.  Jesus’ baptism by John was the acceptance and the beginning of his mission as God’s suffering Servant.  He allowed himself to be numbered among sinners.  Jesus submitted himself entirely to his Father’s will.  Out of love, He consented to His baptism of death for the remission of our sins.  Many Fathers of the Church explain that Jesus received John’s baptism to identify himself with his people, who, as a result of John's preaching, for the first time in Jewish history became aware of their sins and of their need for repentance.  The Jews had the traditional belief that only the Gentiles who embraced Jewish religion needed the baptism of repentance, for, as God's chosen people, the Jewish race was holy.  Jesus might have been waiting for this most opportune moment to begin his public ministry.  The Fathers of the Church point out that the words which the Voice of the Heavenly Father speaks are similar to Psalm 2:17, revealing Jesus’ identity ("This is My beloved Son") and to Isaiah 42:1 referring to the "suffering servant" ("with whom I am well pleased"), revealing Jesus’ mission of saving mankind by His suffering and death.  

The turning point: Jesus’ baptism by John was a mystical experience that Jesus felt deep within his soul at the crucial turning point of his life. The opening of the Heavens with Holy Spirit descending as a dove upon Jesus, and the Voice declaring of Jesus, "This is My beloved Son with Whom I am well pleased," are God's revelation to mankind of the Mystery that He is Triune.  The presence of the Triune God at this baptism, reveals Jesus’ true identity and mission. The Heavens’ opening also indicates that this was a moment of God’s powerful intervention in human history and in the life of His Son. His baptism by John was a very important event in the life of Jesus.  First, it was a moment of decision.  It marked the end of Jesus' private life, which had prepared him for his public ministry.  Second, it was a moment of identification with his people in their God-ward movement initiated by John the Baptist (quality of a good leader).  Third, it was a moment of approval.  Jesus might have been waiting for a signal of approval from his Heavenly Father, and during his baptism Jesus got this approval of himself as the Father's "beloved Son."  Fourth, it was a moment of conviction.  At this baptism, Jesus received certainties (assurances) from Heaven about his identity and the nature of his mission: a) He was the "Chosen One" and the "beloved Son of God"; b) his mission of saving mankind would be fulfilled, not by conquering the Romans, but by becoming the "suffering servant" of God, i.e., by the cross.  Fifth, it was a moment of equipment.  When He descended on Jesus in the form of a dove (symbol of gentleness), the Holy Spirit equipped Jesus with the power of healing, and that of preaching the "Good News"  -- that God is a loving Father, Who wants to save all human beings from their sins through His Son Jesus, in contrast to the "axe" and "fire" preaching of John the Baptist about an angry God's judgment on sinners.

Life messages: 1) The baptism of Jesus reminds us of our identity and mission First, it reminds us of who we are and Whose we are.  By Baptism we become the adoptive sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus, members of his Church, heirs of Heaven and temples of the Holy Spirit. We become incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ, and made sharers in the priesthood of Christ [CCC #1279].  Hence, "Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other Sacraments" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1213).  Most of us dipped the fingers of our right hand into the holy water font and blessed ourselves when we came into Church today.  Why?  This blessing is supposed to remind us of our Baptism.  And so when I bless myself with Holy Water, I should be thinking of the fact that I am a child of God; that I have been redeemed by the Cross of Christ; that I have been made a member of God’s family; and that I have been washed, forgiven, cleansed and purified by the Blood of the Lamb. 

2) Jesus’ baptism reminds us of our mission:  a) to experience the presence of God within us, to acknowledge our own dignity as God’s children and to appreciate the Divine Presence in others by honoring them, loving them and serving them in all humility; b) to live as the children of God in thought, word and action so that our Heavenly Father may say to each one of us what He said to Jesus: "You are My beloved son/daughter with whom I am well pleased.” It means that we are to let His thoughts direct our thoughts, His mind control our mind, His concerns be our concerns.  In the Church we all share the same intimate connection with Christ; we are all brothers and sisters in Christ; c) to lead a holy and transparent Christian life and not to desecrate  our bodies (the temples of the Holy Spirit and members of Jesus' Body) by impurity, injustice, intolerance, jealousy or hatred; d) to accept both the good and the bad experiences of life as the gifts of a loving Heavenly Father for our growth in holiness; e) to grow daily in intimacy with God by personal and family prayers, by reading the Word of God, by participating in the Holy Mass, and by frequenting the Sacrament of Reconciliation; and f) to be co-creators with God in building up the “Kingdom of God” on earth, a  Kingdom of compassion, justice and love, and to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  In other words, He has called us to help others to see, through the love that we show and the help that we give, that God loves them, that He also invites them to be His sons and daughters and that He wants to be their helper and strength through all the troubles that life in this world can bring.

3) This is the day for us to remember the graces we have received in Baptism and to renew our Baptismal promises: On the day of our Baptism, as Pope St. John Paul II explains, "We were anointed with the Oil of Catechumens, the sign of Christ's gentle strength, to fight against evil.  Blessed water was poured over us, an effective sign of interior purification through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We were then anointed with Chrism to show that we were thus consecrated in the image of Jesus, the Father's Anointed One.  The candle lighted from the Paschal Candle was a symbol of the light of Faith which our parents and godparents must have continually safeguarded and nourished with the life-giving grace of the Spirit."  This is also a day for us to renew our Baptismal promises, consecrating ourselves to the Holy Trinity and “rejecting Satan and all his empty promises," which our profane world is constantly offering us through its mass-media of communication.  Let us ask Our Lord today to make us faithful to our Baptismal promises.  Let us thank Him for the privilege of being joined to His mission of preaching the "Good News" by our transparent Christian lives of love, mercy, service and forgiveness. 

Exegetical notes on today’s scripture readings

First Reading, optional in year C: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11

The people of Israel spent sixty years in exile, as captives of the Babylonians, from about 600 BC to 540 BC. The second part of the book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55, prophesies the end of this Exile and the return of the captives to their homeland. Today's first reading begins that section. Isaiah says that God has told him to tell the exiled citizens of Jerusalem that their "sentence" is at an end or their exile is over. Isaiah’s prophecy reminds them plainly that the Exile was a punishment for their sins, but tells them that the merciful God has forgiven them.  The next few sentences of today’s reading describe how the exiles are to return home. They will return as a grand religious procession from Babylon to Jerusalem led by their own God. To pave the way, valleys and mountains are to be leveled, and a highway created in the wilderness. The exiles in the region are coming back to Judah, and within Judah, to the city of Jerusalem, and within Jerusalem, to the hill Zion where their Temple had stood. The last paragraph presents a lonely sentry who never went to Babylon but waited in Jerusalem, always looking out for the return of the exiles. He finally sees the approach of the procession described above, and he can't contain his joy. He shouts it from the highest hill, "Here comes your God with power!"

Second reading: Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7: The author of this letter wants his Christian followers to behave properly, not to earn God's love, but in response to that love freely given. The birth of Jesus, the wise men’s discovery of him, Jesus’ baptism and his coming again in glory are all treated in Scripture and in our liturgy as unexpected appearances (Epiphanies) of God among us. So, the Letter to Titus applies to our Baptism the themes of Divine appearance and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which is borrowed from Jesus' own baptism. Today’s selection combines two sections, both of which we recently read at Christmas, one at midnight and one at dawn. In this passage, St. Paul teaches how God saves us by incorporating us into Christ. Among the congregation served by the early bishop Titus were Christians who believed they had to practice the laws of Judaism and tried to impose those laws on pagan converts to Christ. Paul reminds them that God saved us "not because of any righteous deeds we had done, but because of His mercy." In other words, those law-driven righteous deeds don't win our salvation, but God gives it freely. We accept that gift by taking the bath of rebirth, when the Spirit is richly poured out on us. It is this, not our observance of laws, that makes us justified (right with God) and that give us the hope of eternal life.

Gospel exegesis: Who baptized Jesus and why? While there is no doubt that John baptized Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, he does it reluctantly in Matthew’s Gospel (3:13-17), and he’s already locked up in prison in Luke’s Gospel (3:20). There is no portrayal of John baptizing Jesus in John’s Gospel; all we have is the testimony of the Baptizer (1:29-34). Because each evangelist after Mark, commonly accepted as the oldest Gospel, tries to tone down or erase Jesus’ baptism by John, we must conclude that the event caused a problem near the end of the first century because many were saying that John must be the greater, since he did the baptizing. By gradually removing John from the scene, Matthew and Luke elevate Jesus. But there is little doubt that John the Baptist baptized Jesus; if he hadn’t, Matthew and Luke wouldn’t have rewritten Mark’s story. Jesus presents himself for John’s baptism in today’s Gospel, not because he is a sinner, but to fulfill the word of God proclaimed by His prophets. He must be baptized to reveal that he is the Christ (“anointed one”) - the Spirit-endowed Servant. “In Baptism, all are anointed with that same Spirit, made beloved sons and daughters of God. Indeed, we are Christians - literally “anointed ones.” (Scott Hann).

 “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness What this means has prompted much debate. It may be that Jesus was “fulfilling” all the scriptural prophecies about him which focused on “righteousness.” It may be that he was seen as validating the rite of baptism for all future generations of Christians. Or it may be that even the Messiah could undergo a re-orientation towards perfect righteousness, and so could repent and be baptized.

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” Mark and Luke have the words addressed to Jesus, “You are my Son….” But Matthew’s “This is my Son” makes the words relevant to the bystanders because they are an open testimony to the Father’s approval of his Son … and we should view “Son” as a Messianic title. The Heavenly Voice points to a relationship shared by no other. It is significant, it is “good news,” that Jesus hears he is the “beloved Son, with whom [God] is well pleased” before his public ministry begins. The Heavenly Father is much pleased with his Son's humble submission and speaks audibly and directly to him for all to hear: “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”  The Holy Spirit, too, is present as Jesus submits to John's baptism.  The Holy Spirit anoints Jesus for his ministry which begins that day as Jesus rises from the waters of the Jordan River.

Significance of Christ’s baptismThis exalted identity of the “Son of God” revealed at his baptism is the starting point for all that Jesus will undertake—his self-giving ministry, death and Resurrection. It is because Jesus knows Who he is that he does as he does. As we begin Ordinary Time, we do so knowing that, in our own Baptism, God has named us beloved sons and daughters. Like Jesus, all that we undertake must flow from who we are—God’s beloved. We are called to follow in the footsteps of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  This means that we, too, must humbly submit ourselves to God's wise and loving plan for our lives.  He, in turn, anoints us with the Holy Spirit that we may be clothed with His power and grace. According to the Navarre Bible commentary, in Christ's baptism we can find a reflection of the way the Sacrament of Baptism affects a person. Christ's baptism was the exemplar of our own. In it the mystery of the Blessed Trinity was revealed, and the faithful, on receiving Baptism, are consecrated by the invocation of and by the power of the Blessed Trinity. Similarly, Heaven’s opening signifies that the power, the effectiveness, of this Sacrament comes from above, from God, and that the baptized have the road to Heaven opened up for them, a road which Original Sin had closed. Jesus's prayer after His baptism teaches us that "after Baptism man needs to pray continually in order to enter Heaven; for though sins are remitted through Baptism, there still remains the inclination to sin which assails us from within, and also the flesh and the devil which assails us from without.” Each time we dip our hand into the Holy Water font in a church to bless ourselves, we need to remember, that act is a renewal of our Baptism. Just like Jesus at the Jordan, every baptized believer is formed and called by God, empowered with the presence of the Spirit and elevated as a beloved child of God on whom God’s favor rests. (Prepared by Fr. Antony Kadavil)

03 January 2019, 11:01