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Baptism of the Lord

Basilica of the Assumption

I. Introduction

A. Some years ago, a business executive came to see me. He was well-respected for his integrity, his leadership abilities, and his effectiveness. We were not long into the conversation before I realized that he had come to ask for my advice about a complicated business deal. He wasn’t just seeking moral guidance but also professional advice. At first I hesitated, rightly claiming my lack of expertise but he wouldn’t he wouldn’t let me off the hook. He really wanted me to sit with him and help think through his problem.

B. Perhaps that is how John the Baptist felt when Jesus came to the Jordan River and asked to be baptized. Today’s reading from the Gospel of St. Luke only alludes to the conversation, reported elsewhere, in which John the Baptist objects to the very idea of baptizing Jesus, and Jesus, for his part, insists that John do so. Instead, Luke’s Gospel reports what John said to the people and to his own disciples: “I am baptizing with water, but one mightier than I am coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).

II. The Revelation of Mercy

A. So, we might ask why Jesus insisted on being baptized. After all, we have just finished celebrating the Birth of Christ who is the Son of God and the Son of Mary. Last Sunday we celebrated the manifestation of Jesus by light of a star signifying that he is the light of the world, a light for all nations. Throughout the Christmas season, we have proclaimed Jesus as the Eternal Son of God who came as our Redeemer, taking upon himself our humanity, becoming ‘like us in all things but sin’ (Heb. 4:15). And, at every Mass, the Church proclaims Jesus as the sinless “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Yet now we find Jesus, with a great mass of humanity going down into the waters, undergoing a baptism of repentance for sins he did not commit. Doesn’t that, so to speak, muddy the waters? Doesn’t that send us a confusing signal?

B. Pope Francis has shown us the way to answer that question by setting aside this present year as a special holy year, dedicated to God’s mercy. Again and again, Francis urges us to turn our entire attention to Jesus and to realize who he is and what he has done for us. At Christmas we celebrated the birth of the glorious Son of God as a little child. He became part of a family and he worked with his father as a carpenter. St. Paul would say that Son of God did not cling to his divinity but instead emptied himself, assuming the lowly conditions of our humanity. In Jesus, God wanted to draw close to us, to come “in person”, to reveal his merciful love through our own humanity – so much does God love us!

C. So when Jesus underwent John’s baptism of repentance, he was in fact drawing near to sinful humanity so as to show forth God’s mercy. St. Luke points out that Jesus prayed intently before he was baptized, and indeed, dear friends, he was praying for us and for our salvation. And when he went down into the water, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus, and the Father’s voice was heard: “You are beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.” Think of it: the Father is well-pleased that Jesus his Son and our brother would take upon himself the sins of the world – so much does the Father love us!

III. The Bath of Mercy

A. There is another reason why Jesus submitted to John’s baptism and it’s this: in going down into the waters of the Jordan River, Jesus made all water holy, that is to say, he made it the instrument, the means, by which we were baptized “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” For the Sacrament of Baptism which you and I received, most of us in our infancy, links us to Jesus’ baptism of fire, that is the Cross, by which he overcame our sins, and to the coming of the Holy Spirit through whom we share, even now, in new life, the whole new way of life that Jesus won for us by his Resurrection. Far from muddying the waters, Jesus made them clear, lipid, the source of new life! So in celebrating the Lord’s Baptism, we celebrate the origins of our own baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus, the well-beloved Son, the merciful Savior.

B. As St. Ambrose of Milan remarked in the 4th century: “See where you are baptized, see where your Baptism comes from, if not from the Cross of Christ, from his death. There is the whole mystery: he died for you. In him you are redeemed, in him you are saved!” (CCC, № 1225) No wonder St. Paul exalts in today’s reading from his letter to Titus: “When the kindness and generous love of God our Savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out upon us through Jesus…” (Titus 3:6). So, just as the Holy Spirit descended upon the humanity of Jesus at his baptism, so too the Holy Spirit was poured forth into our hearts on the day of our baptism that our sins might be put to death and we might receive a share in eternal life, so that even now we might breathe the pure air of the Kingdom of Heaven, our true and native land as sons and daughters of the heavenly Father— so much does our God love us!

IV. Living Our Baptism

A. So what is the upshot of all this? What does it mean for you and me, in practical terms, that the Lord was baptized for us and that we have been baptized in the Lord? Is this not a day for you and me to give thanks to the Lord for the gift of Baptism and to resolve, here and now, as we go back to work and to school, and face perhaps the prospect of some wintry weather – that we will open our hearts daily to the gift of God’s mercy? Shouldn’t we resolve not to take God’s mercy for granted but instead give thanks to the Lord each day for communicating his mercy to us, for bestowing it upon us in a real and tangible way in his Word and in his Sacraments?

B. Anticipating the coming of Jesus, Isaiah prophesied: “Every valley shall be filled in; every mountain and hill made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, and the rough country, a broad valley (Is. 40:9). By praying each day, reflecting on the Scriptures, coming to Mass each Sunday, by receiving the Sacrament of Penance frequently and worthily, and by forgiving our enemies and serving generously those in need – this is how we live the merciful love we received in and through Baptism. This is how the valleys – the depths of sin – are filled in! This is how the mountains – the obstacles we put in God’s way – are leveled! This is how the rugged land – enmity in our relationships with others – is smoothed. Indeed, this is how the door of God’s mercy is opened for us not once but every day of our lives until we stand before the Father face to face, radiant in his mercy and recognizable as his own beloved sons and daughters – so much does he love us!

May God bless us and keep us always in his love and mercy!