Follow Christ into the waters of baptism

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The Baptism of the Lord, Year C: Jan. 13, 2013
Isa 42:1-4, 6-7; Ps 29; Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

When Christian pilgrims visit the Holy Land, one of the many sites that we seek out is the location where our Lord Jesus was baptized. We know that John the Baptist was baptizing in the Jordan River, and there are a few different spots along the Jordan that are suggested as possible locations. One of these is a location in the present-day country of Jordan, called “Al Maghtas,” just a little to the east of the current course of the Jordan River, where excavations in the mid-1990s uncovered the remains of a number of church buildings built starting around 500 AD to mark this very spot.

When I was there a little over two years ago, it was quite dry, and we walked the short distance from there to the present-day Jordan River, where it was possible to touch the water. And we know that, especially at another location near the Jordan, many will enter into the water and even be baptized—or rather rebaptized, if they are Christians who do not understand as we do that baptism is a one-time, transformative event.

At the time when our Lord Jesus went to that spot on the Jordan, there were many crowds doing just that—seeking to see St. John the Baptist, to hear his preaching, and to be baptized by him in the Jordan. And why did they do this? Because they were hungry for the word of the Lord spoken by an authentic prophetic voice, after so many centuries without prophets. Because they knew that they needed to make a change in their lives, a radical turn of repentance and conversion. And this act of baptism—of being immersed in a purifying bath—was something that converts to Judaism did; and so these lifelong Jewish people entered into the same act to manifest their desire to make the same deep change.

And yet they were also hoping for more. We hear in our Gospel reading that they were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ—the Christ, the Messiah, the long-promised Anointed One whom the Lord would send to save his People. This was who they were hoping for.

And John was clear that this was not him. He was clear about his identity, about who he was. He was not the Christ; but the Christ was coming, and he was his Precursor. John proclaimed his coming by who he was, and by the words he spoke, and even by his action of baptizing: for his baptizing with water, helping the people to bring about repentance in their lives, pointed toward a much more powerful baptism, the Messiah’s baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire.

And so Jesus, who was the Christ, came with the crowds to the place where John was baptizing. He came for the sake of repentance and forgiveness; he came for the sake of identity and adoption; he came for the sake of anointing with power. But let us consider in turn what each of these means.

First, he came for the sake of repentance and forgiveness. It was not that he needed to repent or be forgiven—for he was perfectly sinless and holy. But he knew that we needed to repent, and we needed to be forgiven. He knew that sin was our great problem: that it separates us from God and from each other, it corrupts us, it eats away at our core. And he knew that it was only by his transforming grace that sin could be overcome in us.

And so he entered into the waters of baptism—not so that the waters would sanctify him, but so that he would sanctify the waters. For by his baptism he gave to the baptismal waters a power that they never had before: a power in Christian baptism to forgive and wash away original sin and all personal sins. And this powerful water flows in every baptismal font, to cleanse us when we follow him into it. He came for the sake of repentance and forgiveness.

Second, he came for the sake of identity and adoption. Here too, it was not that his identity needed to be changed: he had been God the Son from all eternity, begotten by the Father before all ages. When the voice of the Father was heard from heaven declaring that he was his beloved Son, this was not a change, but a manifestation of his identity, so that all might know who he was and is.

But he wanted to give us the grace of adoption. He wanted to join us to himself, to enable us to share in his identity as Son, to adopt each of us as son or daughter of the Father. And when we follow him into the waters of baptism, we emerge to hear those same words—in truth, by grace—”You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus came to those waters came for the sake of identity and adoption.

Third, he came for the sake of anointing with power. “Christ” means “Anointed”; and in his baptism, with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him, our Lord in his human nature received a special anointing with the Holy Spirit that empowered him for the ministry he would accomplish and the passion and death he would suffer for us. And here too he did this for us: so that, when we follow him into the waters of baptism, we too are anointed, in baptism and confirmation, with the Holy Spirit; we too are strengthened and enabled to live out the good works that the Father intends for us to accomplish. We too are anointed; we too are Christians, “little Christs,” in Jesus Christ. He came for the sake of anointing with power.

Now at this point I would love to say: Come to baptism! Follow our Lord Jesus into the baptismal waters to receive forgiveness and adoption and anointing! And indeed, if any of you have not been baptized, I invite you to contact the rectory to ask about RCIA, which is the program that will prepare you for baptism.

But most likely nearly everyone here has been baptized. And baptism only happens once, for it makes an indelible imprint on our souls that will never disappear for all eternity. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to do—to make sure that we are living out all that our Lord Jesus meant to give us today, right now, through his baptism. Two questions:

First, do you have sins committed since your baptism that need to be washed away? We recall that Christ said to St. Peter, at the time that he was washing the disciples’ feet, “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed” (John 13:10); and that foot-washing occurs in sacramental confession. That same power to cleanse and forgive flows in the words of absolution spoken by the priest. So, if you have killed the share in the divine life that you received in baptism through mortal sin, it will be restored there; and all other sins are also washed away by the merciful, cleansing hand of Jesus. In baptism you were bathed; have your feet washed again in confession.

Second, in baptism you were adopted in Christ as a son or daughter of the Father. But are you conscious of this? Do you live it out? Is one of your first thoughts each morning to hear the Father’s voice saying, “You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter; with you I am well pleased“? Is your life shaped, your choices guided, your plans formed, by that relationship with the Father, by seeking to do his will in your life, to live out the identity of who he knows you to be? Or are you instead shaped much more by the expectations of the world, of your neighbors, your boss, your parents, your spouse; of worldly standards of success? Hear those words again: let them sink into your heart today and every day. As Pope John Paul II wrote to families (Familiaris consortio, 17), “Become what you are.”

For you have followed Christ into the waters of baptism, and it has changed who you are. The Father has chosen you; he has called you; he has formed you; he has grasped you by the hand. You have been through the waters, the bath of rebirth and renewal. The Father says: “You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter; with you I am well pleased.“Become what you are!”

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