The Baptism of the Lord (Year A)
First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 Second Reading: Acts 10:34-38 Gospel Reading: Matthew 3:13-17
“AFTER JESUS WAS BAPTIZED, HE CAME UP FROM THE WATER AND ...”
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.
Even the Gospel Reading of today from St. Matthew speaks of this – John the Baptist expresses his unwillingness and tries to prevent Jesus, saying to him - “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” But Jesus answers him - “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” And then John allows him.
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.
'So, why did Jesus, the Sinless One, submit himself to John’s baptism?'
For three 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.
And thirdly, to fulfill righteousness, i.e. to give a new, full & divine meaning to baptism.
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 Gospel Reading of today tells us that after the baptism of Jesus, when he came up from water, the heavens were opened and the Spirit of God descended upon him like a dove and a voice was heard - “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Here we see that Jesus is filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit and is declared by God the Father as His beloved Son. And this what happens to us when we are baptized, i.e. at baptism we are filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit and obtain a new life; next, we also become a child of God in Jesus Christ. So, we see that baptism actually manifests or reveals who a Christian is. 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, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” God says the same thing to each one of us in our baptism, 'You are my beloved daughter, my beloved son.'
Again, 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.
In the Second Reading of today from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter in his sermon to Cornelius, a pagan official to be baptized and the first Gentile to be accepted into the fold by the Apostles, speaks of the beginning of the ministry of Jesus after the preaching and baptizing of John and characterizes this ministry as endowed by the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism is mentioned only in passing, but it was an important event in the proclamation of the kingdom of God. He specifies that God had anointed him with the Holy Spirit and power. Here Peter also speaks that God shows no partiality towards any one. In every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him. His salvation is universal and is extended to all since all are created by him and all are his children. He is generous and he does not hold back his graciousness from other people.
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: Prophet Isaiah speaks of the promised Messiah who is God’s chosen Servant and who is filled with God’s Spirit. This Servant goes about in the streets and public places proclaiming the word of God. He does not cry out or shout, but operates more by example. He proceeds with kindness and mercy. His ways are gentle and his aim is to transform the nations of the world, reaching even distant coast lands. God assures the Servant the ultimate victory. Filled with the Spirit of God, the Servant will bringing forth justice to all the nations. He will give them new sight, free them from whatever holds them bound, and bring out into the light those who live in darkness of sin and ignorance. A dimly burning wick he would not quench, says the prophet. The prophet tells us that there is always hope for the souls, when the grace of God is at work.
Now, 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.