Baptism of the Lord, Year B – Sunday, January 11, 2014
Christmas has come and gone, and the Magi are now off on the distant horizon, having returned to their native lands by another road. The feast of the Baptism of the Lord seemingly brings an end to the Christmas season, although, in reality, it is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Feb. 2 that marks the great conclusion of the Christmas season.
Nonetheless, it is useful to ask ourselves some hard questions today of what we have just experienced in the Nativity celebrations.
A great tragedy of Christmas is that for many, it is a religion of one night, however lovely and shining it may be. The Incarnation of Jesus is reduced to mere sentimentality, tradition or a cultural feast. But Jesus is not a meteor. It is not enough to come to the manger and get stuck there; we must turn from it. And then, accepting what the occupant of the manger means, we must begin to live out that meaning, choosing what may be new directions, challenging previous ways and assumptions, continuing the journey of our life with the knowledge that something has changed. One person has made a huge difference in our life and has literally changed history.
The theme of Christ’s epiphany — of Jesus inaugurating his divine mission on earth — reaches its fulfillment in today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The beautiful text from Evening Prayer on the feast of the Epiphany reads: “Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.” Each event is accompanied by a theophany, by startling evidence of divine intervention: the star, the water into wine, the voice from heaven and the dove. Today we witness the baptism of the Lord, the one into whom we ourselves are baptized.
In today’s Gospel, the appearance of John the Baptist seems to send us back to Advent…to look carefully at the evidence of the Baptizer and of Jesus, and to make some decisions about our lives and our future. Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus is the earliest account we have in the Scriptures. The Baptizer’s preaching is both abrasive and attractive. His very opening statement detracts the attention from himself and places it on the one who is coming, the “one mightier than I” [v. 7]. John’s whole mission was a preparation for the Messiah’s coming. When the time had come, John led his own disciples to Jesus and indicated to them the Messiah, the True Light, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Jesus was attracted to John and he accepted to be baptized because he identified totally with the human condition. He felt our struggle and our need to be washed from the guilt of our sins. Through his own baptism by John in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus opens the possibility to us of accepting our human condition and of connecting with God the way we were intended to. We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Heaven opens above us in the sacrament. The more we live in contact with Jesus in the reality of our baptism, the more heaven will open above us.
While I was studying in Rome, I came across a story from the early Church that is very fitting for us on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. During the third century, Cyprian of Carthage wrote to his friend Donatus: “It’s a bad world, Donatus, in which we live. But right in the middle of it I have discovered a quiet and holy group of people. They are people who have found a happiness that is a thousand times more joyful than all the pleasures of our sinful lives. These people are despised and persecuted, but it doesn’t matter to them. They are Christians, Donatus, and I am one of them.”
As we remember Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, let us echo Cyprian’s words without fear: “We too are one of them.” Our own baptism invites us to recall the past with gratitude, to accept the future with hope and the present moment with wonder and awe. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we are invited to the banquet of the Lord, so lavishly spread out before us. Our sharing in the Eucharist bonds us together with our brothers and sisters who have been immersed into the life of Christ through the waters of baptism. Let us pray that the grace of our own baptism will help us to be light to others and to the world, and give us the strength and courage to make a difference.
[The readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 or Isaiah 55:1-11; Acts 10:34-38 or 1 John 5:1-9; Matthew 1:7-11]