Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Scripture Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Mt 3:13-17

“For it is fitting for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

“It is fitting,” meaning corresponding perfectly and in every respect with the will of God. 

“For us,” indicating a singular, almost conspiratorial relationship between these two men at this moment in history on the banks of the Jordan. 

“In this way,” meaning an undermining of all religious assumptions and expectations; an upsetting of what till then had been considered “fitting” in the relationship of God and man. 

“To fulfill,” meaning as Paul will say the end of all religion by the beginning-from-now Enduring Presence, disquieting and comforting, of all religions’ End and Goal.

“All righteousness,” meaning God’s gratuitous offer of salvation and beatitude to all, an offer and a salvation sacramentalized in every word and gesture of Jesus that the Gospel will now take pains to narrate.

“For it is fitting for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” “Then he allowed it.” “What,” asks Saint Ambrose, “is righteousness if not mercy? . . . . What does righteousness mean if not that you be the first to do what you would like the other to do, and so encourage the other by your example?”

Justice, righteousness, is not crying out or shouting; it is not breaking the bruised reed, not shaming your brother, exploiting his failures, capitalizing on his weaknesses to enhance your own self-esteem. Justice, in  community and family, is to bring out one another from our prisons of self-hatred, fear, trauma, and painful memories; to open each other’s eyes to the beauty of God in our own hidden loveliness, to release one another from the things of the past and accompany them in the Trinitarian way of loving truth: the righteousness of God that is Mercy fulfilled by Jesus and John, entrusted to us as mission and vocation, through our own baptism in the Name of Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. A voice is always saying over us, in us, about us, “This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I have taken delight.”




Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

[Scripture Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Mt 3:13-17 ]

A few days ago during a General Audience in St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis asked the crowd a question. He said, “Who knows the date of their Baptism? Raise your hand!” Only a few could raise their hands. He continued, “Allow me to give a piece of advice. More than advice, some homework. Search for the date of your Baptism, that beautiful date, … that happy date, … because it is a feast day, … a day for celebration.” Three wonderful things happen at Baptism. First, our sins are washed away; second, we become partakers of God's divine nature; and third, we make a commitment to renounce sin and Satan, with all his works and empty promises.

You celebrate your birthday, but your baptism is a greater cause for celebration. How much greater? Imagine the difference between inheriting earth on the day you were born, compared to inheriting all the planets and stars in all galaxies of the whole universe on the day you were baptized. Because Baptism makes us sharers in God's own nature there's no gift that can compare with that. Possessing the entire universe would be a grain of sand compared to sharing in God's infinite divine life, to do what God can do. That is our destiny, our great hope, our cause for joy and celebration!

On Christmas we celebrated the birthday of Jesus. Today we celebrate his Baptism. But why was Jesus baptized? He did not need the first gift of Baptism, to be washed clean from sins, because he had no sins. He did not need the second gift of Baptism, to become a partaker in God's nature because he was already God. But Jesus did share in the third grace of Baptism, he made a commitment to overthrow Satan by giving up his life to save us. When Jesus was buried in the waters of the Jordan River it was a sign of his commitment to die for us, even by crucifixion; and when he rose from the waters it was a sign of his promise to raise us up with him in the resurrection to eternal divine life.

The German poet and novelist, Johann Goethe, dramatizes the importance of commitments in his story of about Faust, a medieval magician who commits his soul to the devil in exchange for power, youth and romance. The devil says to Faust, “If you commit your life to me, I'll be your servant and your slave.” Faust replies, “And in return what do you ask of me?” Satan says, “… if beyond we meet again, you shall do the same for me.” Faust agrees, saying, “It is from this earth spring all my joys. When I must take leave of them, come what may, it is of no concern. I will it.” The devil responds, “These are splendid words!” Then Satan makes Faust successful and rejuvenates his aging body. He meets a young, beautiful girl name Gretchen whom he seduces and she bears a child. In shame and great distress Gretchen panics and drowns the infant. In the drama's final scene she and Faust are in a dungeon where she is waiting to be executed for her crime. Suddenly Satan rises up to claim both of them. In terror she cries out to heaven, “Save me, Father.” The devil declares, “She is condemned,” but a voice from above says, “She is saved.” Rebuffed, Satan turns to Faust saying, “You! Come with me” and takes him away. Too late Faust realizes the folly of committing himself to the devil for the sake of present enjoyments at the cost of future eternal misery.

By our Baptismal vows we make a commitment to Christ by renouncing Satan and sin for the sake of eternal happiness even at the cost of present sufferings. By keeping his baptismal commitment of suffering, death and resurrection Jesus shows us the importance of keeping our baptismal promises.

Johann Goethe dramatized the fate of those who bargain away their souls by sinful commitments. He also tells about the happiness of those who are faithful to their Baptismal vows. He writes, “Until one is committed to a task or inspiration, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. One elementary truth … is this: the moment you definitely commit yourself, then Providence moves in. All sorts of things happen to help you that would never otherwise have occurred, unless you are committed to act. A whole stream of events issues from that decision, which you could not have dreamed would come your way. Begin. Boldness has power in it. Begin now.”

Pope Francis concluded his address saying: “Don't forget your homework for today, the date of your Baptism. You know the date of your birth, know also the date of your Baptism, because it is a feast day!” It is good to celebrate your birthday. It is even better to celebrate the day of your Baptism with thanksgiving.

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

[Scripture Readings: Is. 42: 1-4, 6-7; Acts 10: 34-38; Mt. 3: 13-17]

When I look back over the Advent and Christmas liturgies the theme that stands out is the graciousness of God’s love for us manifested in the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity becoming completely united with us except for sin. To simply say that this is a profound mystery is an understatement. As with all the mysteries of our faith the Incarnation of the Word of God cannot be encompassed by language. No matter what we say or how eloquently we say it, we have only pointed toward the reality. No wonder we have not only spent weeks celebrating this mystery, but through the liturgical cycle we do this year after year. Each year brings us a little closer to the truth of God’s love for us.

With today’s feast of the baptism of the Lord we are bringing the Christmas Season to a close; but since every end is also a beginning, our celebration this morning is an invitation to follow Jesus during his public ministry, which will culminate in his crucifixion and resurrection. In accepting baptism Jesus who was without sin untied himself with our sinfulness so that we could become united in his sinlessness. In doing this he fulfilled his Father’s will and was revealed as the faithful servant pleasing to God. Our baptism was the beginning of our incorporation into the body of Christ and the beginning of our call to become faithful servants pleasing to God.

The prophet Isaiah summarizes Jesus’ mission as establishing justice on earth. As Jesus’ followers this is also our mission. In a world where the lack of justice on many levels is all too evident, this is no small challenge. I submit that the principle reason for the lack of justice in the world is the world’s failure to realize that until we have right relationships with God there will not be right relationships between individuals and between nations. Jesus’ way to establish justice was not the world’s way, and if we are to be faithful servants of Jesus, we need to honestly ask ourselves if Jesus’ way is also our way. Jesus’ way of service was the way of gentleness, not the way of force and self-assertiveness. In the face of self-assertiveness and the use of force that is so much taken for granted in the world in which we live, we will only be able to follow Jesus as faithful servants by trusting that as the Father supported Jesus even through what appeared to be defeat and failure, he will also support us in our times of difficulty and discouragement. As Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit we too must allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit.

Baptism placed us in a right relationship with God, and opened for us the possibility of bringing justice to completion in love. United with Christ we can return God’s love for us and demonstrate our love for God in our love for one another. In celebrating the baptism of the Lord we not only celebrate the Lord’s baptism; we celebrate our baptism too, and the possibility of attaining a true and lasting justice based on love.

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

[Scripture Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Lk 3:15-16, 21-22]

A recent issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine introduced its lead story with the provocative title “Did Christianity Cause the Financial Crisis?” Now, we all know magazines only get sold if they can get our attention and so editors have to come up with eye-catching headlines, even editors of a time honored, first rate magazine like Atlantic Monthly. But really, what on earth is one to make of these words? The housing market bubble and consequent world wide financial crisis, caused by Christianity?

The story, it turns out, is about a rather curious contemporary phenomenon which misconstrues and distorts the Christian message under the name of “The Prosperity Gospel.” Preachers of the “Prosperity Gospel” are assuring some of the poorest and most miserable people among us, that Jesus promised them happiness in this life. Jesus, they are told, desires you to be happy now, truly happy in the way that only the owner of a really expensive car or a really, really big house can be happy. Jesus himself wants you to have a really big house, even if you can’t afford it. He promised, after all, that you would enjoy the house. He didn’t promise you would be able pay for it. Someone at Atlantic Monthly thought it appropriate to attach to this curious doctrine the name “Christianity” apparently unable to resist the dazzling and provocative magazine cover it would produce. But if producing an effect justifies lack of responsibility why not be completely irresponsible and get the full effect? Why not entitle the article: “Did Jesus Christ Cause the Financial Crisis?

Sadly, this bit of journalistic opportunism could serve to further confuse the gullible people already misled by preachers of the prosperity gospel, who are now without homes, and whose present agony might be an opportunity for all of us to reflect on a vitally important question about Christianity itself; a question of particular importance on the Feast of Jesus’ Baptism. What, finally, does Christian baptism do for a person? Is baptism into Christ the guarantee of a better life? Can we expect the path set out for us by Christian baptism is going to lead us “upward” toward prosperity and happiness, or is it more likely to take us “downward” into neglect, poverty, and misery? Someone might say: “Surely, a person baptized will enjoy a better life, at Jesus’ own baptism, the Father said, ‘On you my favor rests.’” and another might say, “Yeah right. Look at the course Jesus’ life actually took, and how it ended, and you might fairly ask if happiness and God’s favor have anything to do with each other at all.” Is Baptism likely to make of me a certain kind of person characterized by certain personality traits? Is a person more assertive or more passive for having been baptized? Does baptism result in you being more self-possessed or more self-abandoned? Does one “realize oneself” through Christian baptism, or “lose oneself“?

That baptism does not necessarily lead to prosperity would seem to be confirmed by the spectacle of thousands of believers in the prosperity gospel now living on the street, but does that mean, baptism more properly results in a life of poverty or even destitution? Were these people completely mistaken when, for the first time in their lives they looked at the house they lived in and believed they possessed a dignity and value as persons on a par with other Americans? Were they totally deluded in believing that a home you can be proud of might actually be a sign of God’s love and favor? Could we say that their desire to raise themselves to a better standard of living, unreflective as it is, might actually be a manifestation of the grace of baptism?

A little boy is typically brought up to believe he should not be a weakling, but that he should be assertive, even aggressive. Should we expect baptism to make a little boy more assertive; more aggressive? Or might it lead him to be less assertive, more receptive; more patient; more docile? Passivity, obedience, patience, and docility have traditionally been thought of as how baptismal grace manifests itself in a woman, but little girls tend to be trained to be submissive, less assertive, and more docile, whether they are baptized or not. Would it be reasonable to suppose, baptism, might empower a woman to recover her ability to be more assertive; more able to speak for herself and stand up for herself? A poor shepherd eeking out an existence on a rocky slope in war-torn Afganistan, learned a long time ago how to be self-abandoned. Might Christian baptism help someone like him to be more self-possessed? Mother Theresa was one of the most self-possessed people you can imagine; and a woman; a strong-willed, assertive and mightily determined woman. Baptism initiated her into the mystery of almost 50 years without any felt consolation in prayer, an emotionally and spiritually devastating experience which, it seems, resulted in her being not more self-possessed but more self-abandoned. Where is Christian Baptism taking you and I?

If Jesus’ baptism is any indication of what baptism does for us, then you and I, it would seem, are people of whom it could be said: “On him or her Gods’ favor rests.” You and I are favored by God in much the same way Jesus was and our baptism is, in truth, a guarantee of that, not a guarantee that our life will take either an upward or downward path, but that our whole life will be grounded more inwardly; rooting us in that most interior part of ourselves where Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, waits for us with hands and arms open ready to heap upon us all the riches of God’s promises, and most especially, the promise of love and life that never ends.