Sunday, January 10, 2016

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

Today we pivot from our celebration of Christmas
to the beginning of what the Church calls “Ordinary Time”—
those ordinary “green” Sundays
that mark our everyday lives as Christians.
As we make this pivot we celebrate one final mystery
of Christ’s entry into our world:
the Baptism of the Lord,
the event that inaugurated
the public ministry of Jesus,
the time of his proclamation of God’s Kingdom,
the extraordinary ordinary time of his life
in which the sick were healed,
the dead were raised,
and the poor had the good news
proclaimed to them.
This is the story
that unfolds in our hearing
Sunday by Sunday
in the Ordinary Time
of our Christian lives.
But this first Sunday in Ordinary Time,
this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord,
is not simply when we begin
to tell the story of Jesus’ ministry,
it is also when we remember that
through our own baptisms
the story of Jesus
has become our story as well.

To be part of a family
is to “own” a set of family stories.
My family has stories of one group of ancestors
who emigrated from Scotland in colonial times
to seek their fortunes in the New World
and another group who emigrated from Germany
in the late 19th century
for reasons ranging
from avoidance of military service to romance.
We have stories of how my mother’s mother’s mother
ran a hotel all on her own after her husband died,
and how my father’s father ran a dancehall
that was actually the front for a speakeasy
during Prohibition.
We have stories of how my parent met at a party
the night before my father
went to sea for several months
and how when he returned
he called up my mother,
not sure she’d even remember who he was
(my presence here today
testifies to the fact that she remembered).

We all have these family stories that belong to us
or, it might be more accurate to say,
to which we belong.
We belong to these stories
because they shape who we are,
they shape how we see the world
and how we respond to what we see,
they constitute our identities as individuals
who are embedded in a communally shared history.
Even more that biological relationship,
it is these stories
that make us members of a family:
whether one is born into a family
or is adopted into it,
or marries into it,
we belong to a family
because we are heirs to its stories—
the happy and the sad,
the beautiful and the ugly.

But we are not only part
of our individual family stories.
We are also part of the story of the human family:
a story of joys and hopes,
of griefs and anxieties.
It is a story that is deeply marked by sin,
a story of war and poverty
and sickness and death.
It is a story
that has shaped how we see the world
and how we have responded to what we see,
and what we humans see
and how we respond
is often not very pretty.

But the good news
is that you do not have
to let that story define you;
this shared human history
need not be your destiny.
For in baptism you have become
part of a different story:
the story of the people of Israel
and of Jesus
and of his Church.
This is the story of the becoming present
in our human history
of the eternal love that is God:
Father, Son, and Spirit.
In the baptism of Jesus
we hear the voice of the Father
calling him beloved,
and see the Spirit of love
pouring out upon him
from the opened heavens.
And when we are baptized
in the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit,
that story becomes our story.

In our second reading today,
Paul writes to Titus that God
“saved us through the bath of rebirth
and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom he richly poured out on us
through Jesus Christ our savior,
so that we might be justified by his grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”
We become heirs in hope of eternal life
because as members of God’s family
through the grace of baptism
we are inheritors of the story
of Israel, Jesus, and the Church,
the story of hope that is now our story,
a story that can shape how we see the world
and how we responded to what we see.

An early Christian author,
writing about Jesus’ baptism, said,
“At once ‘the heavens were opened to him.’
The world we see was reconciled
with the world that lies beyond our vision;
the angels were filled with joy;
earthly disorders were remedied;
mysteries were revealed;
enemies were made friends”
(attr. Hippolytus of Rome).
And so too at the baptism
of each and every Christian:
the heavens are opened
and our vision is no longer limited
to the often brutal facts of human history
that lie before our eyes;
heavenly powers rejoice as we are freed
from the grip of sin and self-seeking;
the mystery of divine love is made manifest
as hatred is healed and division overcome.
We leave behind in the waters of baptism
the old story of sin and death
and rise into the new story of Christ,
a story of Spirit and of fire,
a story of faith and of hope,
a story of the triumph of love over death.

As you renew your baptismal promises this morning,
as you live the Ordinary Time of your life in Christ,
own that story,
and let that story own you.