Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Baptism of the Lord

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

What did Jesus find when he went down
into the waters of the Jordan river,
to baptized at the hands of John?
What awaited him as he plunged into the bath of repentance
to which John had called his fellow Israelites
in preparation for the coming day of judgment?
Certainly not the washing away of his own sins;
Luke has already informed us in the beginning of his Gospel
that the child born of Mary is holy, the Son of God.
There was no need for Jesus to repent,
to turn his life around.
What, then, took place that day in the river Jordan?
What happened to him in those waters?

Today’s celebration of the Baptism of the Lord
concludes the Christmas season,
and reminds us that for the past few weeks
we have been doing something more
than simply celebrating Jesus’ birthday.
The Baptism of Jesus continues
the “epiphany” or “manifestation” of Jesus to the world
that we celebrated last Sunday:
the Father’s voice from heaven
and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove
show to those present that Jesus is God’s beloved Son –
he truly is “Emmanuel,” God-with-us.

But there is an even deeper connection
between the Baptism of Jesus and the mystery of Christmas.
For the incarnation is not simply about God the eternal Son
taking on a human nature –
as stupendous as that event is –
but it is also about we humans
becoming, through Christ, partakers in God’s own nature.
The early Christian theologian Athanasius of Alexandria
wrote that Christ “was made human
that we might be made God" (De incarnatione no. 54).
This theme has echoed throughout the Christian tradition.
When the priest or deacon mixes water into the wine
at the preparation of the gifts at Mass
he prays, “may we come to share in the divinity of Christ
who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
The poet Gerard Manly Hopkins put it this way:
      In a flash, at a trumpet crash, 
      I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am.
This theme is sometimes called
the admirabile commercium or “wondrous exchange”:
God takes on human nature in all its frailty
so that we may take on the immortality of God’s own nature.
This is the event of our salvation that we celebrate at Christmas,
and it is also what we celebrate in the Baptism of Christ.

What did Jesus find when he went down into the water?
He found the waters of death that we had created.
And in those waters he found us:
drowned in the waters of chaos,
submerged in our alienation from God,
suffocated by our own unlovely sinful acts,
the dead bloated with the corpsegas
of pride and greed and envy.
And stripping himself of his immortality,
Jesus transformed those waters of death into waters of life,
exchanging his divine immortality for our human death,
so that we who were drowned in sin
might be raised with him to immortal life.
Through our baptism,
which St. Paul calls “the bath of rebirth,”
we become partners in that wondrous exchange.
In baptism the Holy Spirit poured out on Christ
is “richly poured out on us”;
in baptism God declares that we, like Christ,
are God’s beloved, on whom God’s favor rest;
in baptism, like Christ, heaven opened to us.

What did we find when we went down 
into the waters of baptism?
What awaited us in the bath of repentance?
We did not find death
but the robe of immortality
that Christ left for us there,
the glorious garment of which he stripped himself
so that we might be clothed in everlasting life.
Wrapped by Christ in that robe of light
we pray that we may be worthy of such a garment,
that we might live lives that reflect
the divine glory that has been given to us.
It was for this that God became a human being:
that God’s life and light might be reflected in us
who have become through grace 
what Christ is by nature:
beloved sons and daughters of God.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


We call this feast,
on which we recall the visit of the Magi to the Christ child,
“Epiphany,” from the Greek word epipháneia,
which means an appearance or manifestation.
We also use the word “epiphany” 
in a more secular sense,
one popularized by the novelist James Joyce,
to refer to flashes of profound realization
that seem to strike us from out of the blue.
Today it seems to be used for any insight,
some of them less-than-profound:
in a recent news story from Los Angeles,
a teacher at an elementary school
that had provided iPads for all its students
described the effect on learning as “an ephiphany.”
“Epiphany” is even the name for an integrated suite
of Customer Relations Management software.
Presumably using this software 
will give one striking new insights
into how to manage one’s customer relations.

But the epiphany that we celebrate today
is something more than an idea 
that suddenly occurs to the Wise Men.
What the Magi find in Bethlehem is not an idea, 
but a person: Jesus Christ.
Pope Benedict has written: “Being a Christian
is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea,
but the encounter with an event, a person,
which gives life a new horizon
and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est no. 1).
What the Pope is warning against here
is the temptation, on the one hand, 
to reduce being a Christian
to a set of ideas that we hold 
about God and the world –
making it something like 
a philosophical system –
or, on the other hand,
to transform it 
into a set of ethical positions –
whether this be a commitment to peace and justice
or to so-called “traditional values.”
Pope Benedict does not deny 
that Christianity commits us
both to certain truth claims 
about God and the world
and to certain ethical positions,
but the heart of Christianity is found 
neither in our ideas nor our ethics
but in our encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.

The Epiphany of the Wise Men
was not their being struck by a startling new notion,
nor their adoption of a new set of moral values,
but the transforming experience 
of meeting God in Jesus Christ.
Their epiphany is their encounter
with the God who has entered our world 
as a human child,
as love that makes itself weak and vulnerable
so as to become one with us in all things but sin.
As a result of this encounter 
they no doubt found themselves
thinking about God and the world in new ways.
After all, if you go searching for a king
and find yourself kneeling before a baby
in a humble dwelling in a small town,
it is bound to overturn 
much of what you thought you knew
about God and the world.
And based on this new understanding 
you very well might find yourself 
with a very different set of values
and a very different approach to living them out.
As Pope Benedict says, this encounter
“gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
In the wake of this encounter,
Jesus Christ becomes for the Magi 
the new star whom they will follow
on their journey of return 
to their true homeland in God’s kingdom.

And this is true for us too.
Our protestant brothers and sisters often speak
of having “a personal relationship with Christ.”
I used to react negatively to this phrase
because I thought it referred to having
a private relationship with God 
that took no account of other people.
This would run completely counter 
to our Catholic tradition
of the importance of the Church community 
in our life as Christians.
But now I see that 
speaking of a “personal relationship” with Jesus
is less about having your own personal Jesus
and more about having a relationship with Jesus
as a person who is even now living and active.
Perhaps this is something we Catholics need to learn
from our protestant brothers and sisters.
Pope Benedict himself reminds us
that Jesus is not someone 
who lived an long, long time ago
and left behind some interesting ideas 
and ethical injunctions.
Jesus is the risen Lord whom we can encounter
in a way that is just as direct and just as personal
as the encounter of the Magi with the Christ child.

We encounter him in the words of Scripture,
in prayer, 
in the sacraments,
in the poor and the suffering, 
and in each other.
The epiphany of God as love 
is not something that happened long ago;
it is something that is happening here and now.
Just as with the Magi, 
Jesus shows himself to us
so that he might become 
both the star that we follow
and the companion who walks beside us,
on our journey to God’s kingdom.