Baptism of the Lord

On coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:10-11


My Dear Friends in Christ,

Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus went out to John who was baptizing in the Jordan River, at the edge of the Promised Land. John was calling everyone and anyone who would listen to repent of sins and turn back to God. John was the original fire and brimstone preacher, moved as he was to draw people, even kicking and screaming to the Lord. He reminded them of the just and rightfully harsh judgment that would come when God would put before each person his or her sins and call each to account. This was the focus of John’s preaching and he preached that the remedy was to turn to God in Baptism, not a onetime event that would wash away sins with the stain never to return but a true repentance, a change of life and a turning back to God.

John preached also about the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed warrior of God who was coming to bring about the judgment and the justice of God. This Christ was greater than John, sent by God and John was not worthy to untie the sandals of this great warrior. You can imagine then the embarrassment of John as Jesus shows up to be baptized.  John may not have been able to understand that Jesus was without sin entirely, but John knew that Jesus was the one sent by God. John stops short in his tracks, realizing his own unworthiness to baptize Jesus. But Jesus urges John onward and John baptizes Jesus. The heavens open, the Spirit descends in the form of a dove and the voice of the Father is heard: “You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.”

The hesitation and confusion of John is recorded but you can imagine that this was no easy event for the early Church to understand either. If Baptism were about washing away sins and returning to God, how could Jesus, who was without sin and so closely aligned with the Father, then why would Jesus need to be baptized. You would think that the early Church would want to push this one under the rug, cover up the embarrassing fact. Yet, the baptism of Jesus one of the few events outside of the Passion covered in all four of the gospels with little difference. The early Church saw it as important enough not only to record but also to understand and live out.

The early Church was right: Jesus did not need baptism in the same way that the disciples of John did or even we who have been baptized today. Jesus was, is free from sin and did not need to have sin washed away. Jesus was perfectly in tune with the Father, listening for the Father’s will and acting on it without fail. Jesus did not need to be called to turn back to the Father, let alone to do so.

And yet Jesus not only submits to Baptism but searches it out and then forces John to perform the action. Jesus’ own actions mark this as something truly important: First, by his own submission, Jesus sanctifies the waters of Baptism. By his own submission, he begins to turn the symbolic action of John into the sacred sacrament of the Church, that he will, just before he ascends into heaven, call the Apostles and the early Church to do in earnest: Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Second, and more profoundly, Jesus will show, by that very act of submission, the humility of God. In doing this Jesus revealed how royalty truly acts, not in parades or in medals or guards, not in shows of wealth and expressions of power, but in humility, placing oneself in God’s service, submitting fully one’s own will to the plan God has, not merely out of blind obedience but out of love. Imagine this omnipotent, omniscient God who could do anything and be everywhere, has emptied himself as Saint Paul says, and taken on our human form. And now he submits even further to the preaching and action of John all to show how much God loves us.

No barrier will separate us from Jesus, even our sinfulness is not insurmountable as Jesus shows us how to get beyond it with God’s mercy. The call is to repentance, to turn back to God and trust that God will not judge except in mercy. Jesus shows us symbolically by his action here that God is trustworthy, that if one does humble himself before the Lord, the Lord will not crush him but raise him up to new life. In his humble submission, Jesus shows us what our proper stance is before God our heavenly Father. And in doing this, God reveals not only what God does and how we are to react, God also reveals who God is. God is Father, Son and Spirit. God is three in one, an inexplicable mystery of love, relationship and procession: The Spirit descends upon Jesus and marks him as one filled with the Spirit; the voice of the Father is heard: You are my beloved Son.

In this act of humiliation, of humility Jesus shows us who God is: Father, Son, and Spirit. And this is why, then, the Church uses this feast to celebrate and call for a greater awareness in each individual of his and her vocation. As the Father called Jesus to a specific vocation so to God calls each of us to do something for God, to help God enter the world, to help all people understand how much God loves them. Now the role of Jesus was unique; the salvation He accomplished was universal and complete. But each one of us as Christians is called to share in that mission and bring that salvation to others. This goes far deeper than action and involves truly a dedication of one’s whole life to the will of the Father. This is one’s vocation and each person on earth has one.  God calls each of us, without exception to some specific purpose in sharing God’s love.  This is not merely what makes us most happy but what makes us most human as we were created to share in God’s life and respond to God’s will.

There are three major vocations: The most obvious that most people first think of is  service to the Church. One thinks of priests and consecrated religious sisters and brothers, called by God, trained and tested by the Church to serve ones’ sisters and brothers through the Church. We need to pray for these vocations in a particular way, we need to invite young men to consider becoming priests and young women to consider becoming religious. These are essential not only for service but for the life of the Church. Without the priesthood we cannot have the Eucharist, without the Eucharist, we cannot have the Church. Without consecrated religious, we lose the symbolic action of God’s kingdom breaking into the world. But vocations are not limited only to priests and sisters.

In fact there are two more vocations: Marriage is a vocation. In marriage, God calls a man and woman to serve each other and to serve their family. In marriage, the call to serve is more particular than in religious life but it is no less profound. The call is not to serve all of God’s people but a single person in love and to allow that love to spill over into children, not merely creating them but raising them as a true family in the image of Joseph and Mary, the Holy Family. This is no easy task and is not merely a second tier for those who can’t handle religious life. It is an essential vocation that expresses God’s love in this world.

There is also a third vocation. This vocation comes in one committed to the single life and marked by service but not as a religious sisters or brother or as a priest. Called neither to marriage or to the priesthood or consecrated life, the person called to this vocation exercises his or her vocation by serving in a variety of ways as is evidenced by so many of the new lay movements that mark our church. Again, this is not a throw-away, but an essential way God acts in the world.

In each of these, vocations, it is not merely a single decision, but a life commitment marked by the actions of one’s whole life. No matter our vocation, no matter our age, no matter our state in life, we are called to follow the example of Jesus and submit to the will of the Father. If we do this and commit each day and every action and our whole lives, then we will hear, perhaps with less drama, but no less profoundly: You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.




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