Sunday, January 9, 2011

Baptism of the Lord

There are two days in the Church year
when the sacrament of Baptism is brought into sharp focus.
One is Easter.
As most of you know,
it is the practice of the Church to baptize adults at Easter,
during the Easter Vigil, which is the high point of the Church year.
Here, we see Baptism in the context of our celebration
of the dying and rising of Christ,
as the sacrament in which we die with Christ to sin
and are raised with him to new life,
making us members of his body, the Church.
This is a way of thinking about Baptism that will, I hope,
seem familiar to many:
Baptism cleanses us of original sin
and makes us part of the Christian community.
We might call this the “Easter meaning” of Baptism.

The other day on which Baptism is brought into sharp focus is today,
the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
Here the focus is not on the dying and rising of Christ,
but on Jesus’ own baptism,
which is recounted by Matthew in today’s Gospel reading.
This feast, no less than Easter,
ought to shape our thinking about Baptism,
because it fills out the meaning of Baptism
and gives us a fuller understanding of our own Baptisms.

While the Easter meaning of Baptism
looks to the conclusion of Jesus’ earthly ministry,
today’s feast points us to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry
and to his baptism as the inauguration of his public life
as the servant and witness to God’s kingdom.
Having spent some thirty years
living what our tradition calls the “hidden life” in Nazareth,
Jesus comes to John to be baptized.
Coming up from the water, the Spirit of God descends upon him
and the voice of the Father speaks:
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus is publicly identified
as the one spoken of in our reading from Isaiah:
“Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit.”
Thus begins Jesus’ public ministry as God’s anointed one.
As our second reading, from the Book of Acts, puts it:
“God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.
He went about doing good
and healing all those oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him.”

If we think of Baptism in this context,
we can see that our Baptism, no less than Jesus’,
ought to be the inauguration of a life of service and witness.
In Baptism, we are not simply washed of original sin
and made part of the Church,
but we are given a job to do,
a way of life that we are to live.
In Baptism, we too become God’s beloved sons and daughters,
and we are given the task of ministering in Christ’s name.

And what it means to minister in Christ’s name
is to let Jesus’ manner of service and witness
become the pattern for our own service and witness.
Our reading from Isaiah in many ways sums up Jesus’ ministry:
“he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth.”
When we think of Jesus’ ministry in light of this passage from Isaiah,
what stands out is his gentleness, his patience,
his willingness to bear with the weak and faltering
and his unwillingness to use force as a way of establishing justice.
This is the ministry and witness to which we are called in our Baptism:
a way of life characterized by the same sort of
and compassion
that Jesus showed.

Of course, we must not forget
that it was this path of
and compassion
that led Jesus to his cross.
We ought not to mistake the gentleness of Jesus for weakness
nor his patience for inaction.
Indeed, the service and witness of his compassion
was so threatening to the religious and political leaders of his day
that he had to be eliminated, being nailed to a Roman cross.
And we have no reason to believe that the ways of the world
have changed all that much since Jesus’ day,
and if we follow faithfully the path of Jesus
we should not be surprised
if we too face opposition,
if we too must carry the cross.

And it this way, the meaning of Baptism
that we draw from today’s feast
is linked to the Easter meaning of Baptism,
because it is the ministry that is entrusted to Jesus at his baptism
that will lead him to the suffering of the cross
and the glory of resurrection.
And for us too, faithful to the way of Jesus
and trusting in God grace,
our Baptism initiates us into the ministry of Jesus
even as it makes us sharers in the mystery
of his cross and resurrection.
For many of us, our Baptisms may have been a long time ago,
but it is never to late to recommit ourselves to the way of Jesus,
the way of gentleness,
and compassion.