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.