The Baptism of the Lord (Year C)
First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11 Second Reading: Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7 Gospel Reading: Luke 3;15-16, 21-22
“... AND JESUS ALSO HAD BEEN BAPTIZED AND WAS PRAYING, ...”
There is a story told of the machinist who worked years ago at the original Ford Motor Company plant in Detroit, Michigan. Over a period of years he had “borrowed” from the factory various car parts and tools which he hadn’t bothered to return. While the management never condoned this practice, nothing was ever done about it.
In time, however the “forgetful” machinist experienced a Christian conversion and was baptized. More importantly, the man took his baptism very seriously and became a devout believer. The very morning after his baptism, the machinist arrived at work with his pickup truck loaded with all the parts and tools he had taken from the Ford Company over the years. He went to his foreman and explained that he never really meant to steal them and asked to be forgiven.
The foreman was so astonished and impressed by this act that he cabled Henry Ford himself, contacting the auto magnate while he was away visiting a European Ford plant. In his telegram the foreman described the entire event in great detail. Ford immediately cabled back this striking two-line response: “Dam up the Detroit River. Baptize the entire Plant!”
Today, we solemnly celebrate the feast of “The Baptism of the Lord.” Till yesterday, we celebrated an 'infant Jesus.' From today, we celebrate an 'adult Jesus.' This is why today's celebration marks the transition from the liturgical season of Christmas into the liturgical season of Ordinary Time. Today is also the First Sunday in Ordinary Time, although it is never celebrated. However, the prayers of its Mass will be said during the week.
The baptism of Our Lord Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan is an important event in Jesus' life with profound significance. It is highly symbolic, having deep meaning with numerous implications. It's importance is characterized with the fact that all the three Evangelists of the Synoptic Gospels, viz. St. Matthew, St. Mark & St. Luke speak of this striking event. Although there are slight differences in their individual accounts - in reality however, all of them unanimously agree that the baptism of Our Lord Jesus also marks the beginning of his public ministry.
One may wonder, and even find it difficult to understand, and may ask the question: 'Why did Jesus need to be baptized by John the Baptist in the first place?' John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and therefore, most of those coming to him were repentant sinners. But Jesus was sinless; he did not commit any sin; so, in no way did he need this baptism of John the Baptist.
Again, John the Baptist wasn't the one who introduced baptism for the first time. From earlier time on, the Jewish people knew and were used to baptism, but they did not submit to it. Actually, it was used as an initiation rite for the pagan converts to Judaism from some other faith, whom they considered sin-stained or polluted. Even this aspect of baptism is still retained – when we are baptized, we are initiated into the Church and become its members.
Moreover, in the Gospel Reading of today from St. Luke, John the Baptist clearly states that he himself is not the Messiah but only the fore-runner, the herald of his coming. He is “not even worthy to undo the sandals of the One who is coming.” Undoing sandals was something only slaves did. John felt that, in Jesus' case, he was not even worthy to do that. And yet – “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized, and was praying, ...”
'So, why did Jesus, the Sinless One, submit himself to John’s baptism?'
For two reasons:
Firstly, Jesus did it to show his unity and solidarity with the human race, which he came to save. In lining up for baptism by John like a sinner, Jesus set aside all exemption for himself and completely identified with the sinful humanity and became one like them. In this humble submission, we see a foreshadowing of the 'baptism' of his bloody death upon the cross. Jesus’ baptism is the acceptance and the beginning of his mission as God’s suffering Servant. He allowed himself to be numbered among sinners. He submitted himself entirely to his Father’s will. Out of love he consented to this baptism of death for the remission of our sins.
Secondly, he did it to sanctify the water of baptism, so that our sins are washed away and we come to a state of grace in order to follow him. This meaning of baptism in relation to forgiveness of sins is still maintained. When we are baptized, the original sin, as well as personal sins are washed away; we become free from sin and acquire the state of holiness & grace.
Now, Jesus' baptism in the river Jordan by John the Baptist gives a new, fuller and divine meaning to our own baptism. This extraordinary event was also an epiphany i.e. a manifestation or a revelation of who Jesus was - the Divine witness to Jesus’ standing as the Son of God. The Jordan scene was also one in which the threefold presence of God was manifested. The Spirit was seen in the form of a dove and the Son was affirmed by the Father - “And while he prayed, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven which said, 'You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.'" We notice St. Luke’s emphasis on prayer. Other gospel writers describe this event, but it is only St. Luke who points out that it happened while Jesus prayed.
In baptism, we too are named by God. All of us have different names, signifying our uniqueness before God. Yet in baptism, all of us are given the same name, viz. 'child of God,' signifying our oneness with God and our unity with one another in God. God says to Jesus at his baptism, 'You are my beloved Son, . . .' God says the same thing to each one of us in our baptism, 'You are my beloved daughter, my beloved son.'
Again, St. Luke speaks of two baptisms today. The first baptism is, of course, that of Jesus. The second one, though, is the one that we will receive “with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. In the second reading today in his Letter to Titus, St. Paul adds to this that through our own baptism we are saved, renewed, justified and made heirs of the kingdom of heaven. “For when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Here we see the true meaning of grace: 'G-R-A-C-E' spelling 'God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.'
In baptism, we have been 'tattooed,' so to speak, branded or identified by God as belonging to a community of disciples. Jesus is our master. Baptism is not just a simple rite or milestone in one’s life: it is a transforming experience in which God lives in us and we live in God. That’s our identity, our indelible brand. We become empowered by God’s grace, God’s favor, to live as a disciple of Jesus.
Jesus' baptism serves as a model for our baptism. For Jesus, baptism represents the beginning of his ministry. And what is that work that Jesus is to accomplish through his teaching, preaching and healing ministry? That is described in the First Reading of today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: Isaiah promises that valleys will be filled and mountains and hills made low, as all obstacles will be removed and the glory of God will be revealed and made accessible to all. The Lord is coming in the person of Jesus: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom and gently lead the mother sheep.” He is the Bread of Life and the Good Shepherd.
Our baptism is linked with that of Jesus. With baptism our new life of grace begins; it is a fresh start and also the gateway to the rest of Christian life. What we should be prepared for is that our journey of faith, much like Jesus' journey, continues to unfold long after our baptism as we try to discern what our baptism means in our daily living.
In his baptism, Jesus laid the foundation for a new dispensation of grace. From hence through the Sacrament of Baptism, the recipient begins a new life by establishing a union with the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and the Holy Spirit and receiving the gift of faith. In this new birth, the believer receives remission from sin, receives the Spirit of son-ship which enables him or her to become a child of God and a member of the Church, and a citizen of heaven. This way baptism becomes the gateway to the life of grace and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. In so doing, it defines the believer’s rights and responsibilities as a Christian, his/her privileges and mission.
Today, we celebrate the feast of “The Baptism of the Lord” by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. And in so doing, the Church invites all of us to renew our own baptismal promises, so that we can live ever more transparently as a disciple of Jesus, trying to do what is right, and true, and good, and beautiful.
By being baptized, even though he had no need to be cleansed from sin himself, Jesus takes our place. And we in turn, when we are baptized, are called to take Jesus' place, to become 'sons in the Son.' Thus through baptism, we put on Christ; we are clothed with Christ; we become one with Christ; we become another Christ.
Finally, it is very true that we receive baptism only once in our life-time, but it is never a one-time event; we have to live and keep our baptismal promises throughout our life. That is to say that we have to conform to Christ more and more daily. In order words, we who have received the grace of baptism must endeavor always to live up to our baptismal promises throughout our life – and this is the Good News of today.