Baptism: Living as God's Beloved
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V. January 10, 2021
Today, the Christmas season comes to a close with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. It is a feast of relatively recent origin. We are used to the dynamic of the four weeks of Advent leading into the so-called “twelve days of Christmas”, stretching from December 25th to the Solemnity of the Epiphany on January 6th.
In many ways, it is this theme of epiphany – of the manifestation of Christ’s divine origins, the inauguration of his divine mission on earth – which is continued in this feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In one of the antiphons from Evening Prayer on the feast of the Epiphany, we read:
"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."
In the renewal of the liturgy, this theme of “epiphany” or “manifestation” was seen to be so important that those entrusted with the reform “separated out” these three mysteries. Last Sunday’s celebration of the Epiphany focused our reflection on Matthew’s Gospel account of the Magi, representing all the nations of the earth, following the star to the newborn Christ.
Today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks the manifestation of Jesus’ identity: in his baptism at the Jordan, in his revelation as God’s Beloved Son, he is launched into his “public life” and ministry. And in the Year A cycle of readings, the following Gospel is the account of Jesus’ first great “sign”, the changing of water into wine at the wedding of Cana.
So although next Sunday begins the “second” week of ordinary time, today’s feast is right on the cusp: it is at once the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of “ordinary time”. And for those of us, here in Quebec and elsewhere, who are now facing a more serious lockdown, with more restrictions on our daily activities, it is no less true that in this time, we are called to celebrate the Lord’s extraordinary presence in the midst of our ordinary lives. As we live the transition from the Christmas season to our everyday cycle of home life, work-life, and church life, we do so reminded by today’s readings of who we are, through our baptism: God’s Beloved children, called by our Name, entrusted with a unique personal mission, sent in God’s Name.
The baptism of Jesus is one of the few Gospel events reported by all four evangelists. Yet each interprets this event in a different light. Throughout Advent and Christmas, we have listened to Matthew and Luke’s account of the conception, birth and early life of Jesus in the so-called infancy narratives. We have heard the prologue of John’s Gospel, reminding us of Jesus’ divine origins: “In the beginning was the Word – the Word was with God – the Word was God – the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.”
The Gospel of Mark, which will be our focus through this coming liturgical year, tells us no such stories of Jesus’ origins. He launches his Gospel with these simple words: “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and after a very brief description of the ministry of John the Baptist, he moves immediately to John’s baptizing Jesus in the River Jordan.
Mark tells us few details. Yet each one is significant. Jesus comes from Nazareth. He leaves home, leaves behind the familiar surroundings of his village, his daily work and family life, and embraces his public mission. Jesus, the sinless one, humbly accepts John’s baptism; he chooses to identify fully with our human condition, to embrace our human struggle with evil, sin, and guilt. He chooses to be one with us, one of us.
In Mark’s telling, the “epiphany” moment is a personal vision: it is Jesus who experiences the heavens opened, the Spirit descending in the form of a dove, the Father’s voice proclaiming: “You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” There is so much packed into that one sentence: Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son; Jesus sealed with the Holy Spirit for his mission on earth; the rift between heaven and earth, between God and humanity, healed in the One who opens up a bridge between these two worlds, who embraces our humanity so that we might embrace our divine vocation.
As powerful as this was, it was not a one-off event, a peak experience that Jesus merely looked back on and remembered later. For each day of his life, in every aspect of his mission on earth, Jesus lived out of the truth of those words spoken by his Father. He lived each day as the Beloved Child of God, the One in whom his Father delights.
To celebrate the Baptism of Jesus gives us a unique opportunity to reflect on the meaning of our own baptism. Too often, we refer to our baptism as a past event. We say: “I was baptized – 20, 40, 80 years ago.” Now if someone said to you “I was married,” you might assume that the person was no longer married: that the relationship had ceased, that it belonged to the past, and not the present. Baptism is similar. It marks not merely a rite of passage or initiation, but an ongoing part of our Christian identity, guiding and giving meaning to who we are and what we do. Not “I was baptized”, but “I AM BAPTIZED!”
In baptism, each of us is held in divine tenderness, washed in grace, clothed in dignity, anointed for service, empowered for mission: not for one day only, but for a lifetime. This is why the Catechism speaks of Baptism as conferring upon us a permanent character, a seal of divine love: nothing or no one can take away from us. It is God’s gift of the Holy Spirit: to be received in gratitude, renewed in prayer and worship, exercised in service.
Today’s readings explore different facets of our baptismal call and identity. Isaiah’s prophecy reminds us of the gratuity and universality of God’s gift to us. Everyone who thirsts, come to the water! All are welcome – rich or poor, natives or foreigners, righteous or sinners – without money or price. To this day, the Church insists there is never to be a “price” or a “charge” for baptism, nor should it be denied without a very serious reason.
There is no financial cost. And yet, baptism does “cost us” in other ways, far deeper. For to be in relationship with Jesus is to accept the call to conversion: and that conversion has moral, intellectual, and religious implications.
Moral conversion means breaking those bad habits, changing those patterns of behaviour that get in the way of my living God’s call to the full. Intellectual conversion leads us to the recognition that indeed, God’s ways are higher than our ways, and that we can trust in the inherent fruitfulness of God’s plan. And finally, religious conversion is, in the beautiful words of St. Paul, the experience of God’s love flowing into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is hearing and living out of those words spoken to Jesus in today’s Gospel: “You are my child, my beloved one; in you I am well-pleased.”
Most of us can state with relative confidence that God loves us. Too often, though, we see this as a generic kind of love – that God has to love me, well, because he’s God. But if God knew what I was really like – if I let God see those parts of myself I keep carefully hidden from the world, well then, God might feel very differently. We project our own limits onto God.
I think we all need to stretch our imagination on this subject. Try to picture a God who not only loves you, but genuinely likes you, who delights in you, who is passionately interested in what happens to you, who is “especially fond of you.” Imagine a God who is not always judging you, scrutinizing your every action and thought in order to find fault with you, but a God who rejoices in your successes, sympathizes with you in your struggles, but never stops believing in you, no matter what.
Why is it so difficult for many of us to believe in this kind of a God? It’s hard to say. Sometimes the problem is theological: we so absorbed a vision of a God portrayed as punitive and petty, that we feel that a God who is unconditional love is literally just “too good to be true.” More often, the problem is at human level: perhaps we have not been loved well enough, faithfully enough, tenderly enough; we have become scarred and hardened and fearful, our hides impermeable to “the joyful wellsprings of salvation” to which Isaiah’s canticle today refers.
There is another issue that can come up. We want to receive this love, but we resist the invitation to be channels of this unconditional love to others; we do not want to pay the price. This is what Jesus hints at later in the Gospel, when he confronts James and John in their ambition for places of honour: “Are you willing to drink my cup, to be baptized with my baptism?”
We are told by St. John in the second reading that Jesus is the One who came in “the water and the blood.” Although the exact translation and meaning of this text has long been a point of contention for biblical scholars, the Church Fathers read into this text a foreshadowing of the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ pierced side, opening up for believers the precious gift of the sacraments, of Baptism and Eucharist. Just as Christ is present in the waters of baptism, imparting the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christ is also present in the gift of his Body and Blood, becoming one with us in the Eucharist.
Christ, present in the joys of life, in refreshing, life-giving springs of water; the same Christ, no less present in blood, sweat and tears, in the trials of life, in the pain and struggle, in the pandemic, in the economic and political uncertainties of our time.
In baptism, we follow Christ in all the mysteries of his life – the joyful and the luminous, the sorrowful and the glorious. We follow him from Bethlehem to Nazareth, from the Jordan to Jerusalem, from the Cross to the Resurrection, from the Ascension to the coming of the Spirit.
So as we celebrate this wonderful feast, as we prepare in the unique circumstances of this pandemic to resume our journey through “ordinary time”, let us thank God for the precious gift of our baptismal identity. May we never take this gift for granted, or treat it merely as a memory of things past. May we embrace our vocation as God’s beloved sons and daughters, ad may we delight in the God who delights in us. Then we will indeed bear witness to Christ in all we say and do: called by my name, sent in God’s Name.