The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord Homily Year C

Is 42:1-4, 6f. Acts 10:34-38 (both A, B, & C) Lk 3:15f., 21f. Wind, Fire, and Us Beginnings; Well Begun Is Half Done; Faithfulness to Baptism; Jesus’ Baptism and Ours.

We’ve just celebrated some great Christmas feasts: the Solemnities of the Holy Family, Mary the Mother of God, and Epiphany. With today’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord and the beginning of commemorating Jesus’ adulthood, some may think we’re in a time of lesser importance. The truth is that today isn’t just a great feast, but a very great one. Here, the Holy Trinity is manifested for the first time. The Father speaks from heaven, the Son is present, and the Holy Spirit descends.

St Luke presents the psychological setting by saying that the people were filled with expectation (v. 15). The people were wondering whether John the Baptist might be the Messiah, a misconception they pursued time and time again. To the people’s constant questions, John was always honest in his answers — here saying that one mightier than he is coming (V, 16). In the Jewish Scriptures, the word “mighty” was used often for the leader of the final struggle against evil. So John was portraying Jesus as the great liberator in the war against Satan.

We can appreciate John’s selfless other-directedness toward Jesus if we apply it to ourselves and imagine ourselves in a world without mirrors. Eliminate as well from that imaginary world reflecting pools, polished silver, bright store windows, and any other place where we might catch a glimpse of ourselves. Although this might wreak havoc with the cosmetics industry, it would encourage us to see beyond ourselves to a world that badly needs us a world of sin, of unrelieved suffering, of addictions, of strife, of diseases such as AIDS and Alzheimer’s. It would also help us to understand the selfless and other—directed nature of John the Baptist.

John said of Jesus that he would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. As for the Spirit, John was again speaking in the context of the Jewish Scriptures, which frequently attribute messianic achievement to the Spirit. Throughout the Bible many extraordinary accomplishments reveal the presence of the Spirit (the life-power) of God, from creation to the appearance of the messianic king.

John’s image of fire may seem strange at first. Reflection reveals a deeper meaning. In the Jewish Scriptures, great appearances of God often surround Him with fire. When God was making His covenant with Abraham, there appeared in the post—sunset darkness 3 smoking brazier and a flaming torch (Gen 15:17). An angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in fire flaming out of a bush (Ex 3:2). The Lord preceded the Israelites through the desert from Egypt as a column of cloud by day and a column of fire by night (Ex 13:21f.). Ezekiel described his vision of God in terms of a huge cloud with flashing fire (Ez 1:4ff.).

Fire had a prominent place also in liturgical services, where people met their saviour. God gave Aaron and his descendants, the priests, directions on how to put burning embers on the altar and how to place the meat-offerings there (Lev 1:7 ff.). And the Lord instructed Moses that the fire was to be kept burning on the altar (Lev 6:2, 6).

Like fire and the Spirit, Jesus’ baptized followers are to be dynamic and active — “fired up” with the Holy Spirit to proclaim God’s Good News to all the world. In today’s Gospel, when all the people were baptized (v. 21), John had fulfilled the mission confided by the angel to his father Zechariah before his birth — to prepare a people fit for the Lord(Lk 1:17).

That Jesus was at prayer indicates again the importance of the event. Luke often portrays Jesus at prayer on crucial occasions — at his election of the Twelve (6: 12), during his Transfiguration, at Peter’s confession that he was the Anointed of God (9: 18); Jesus prayed that the faith of the chief of the Apostles may not fail when tempted (6:12; 9: 18-20; 22:32); he prayed before his fulfilment of the Father’s plan of love by his passion (22:41), and on his cross (23:46).

At Jesus’ baptism, the skies opened — imagery frequently implying a vision of heavenly secrets. Jesus’ baptism is a promise to be fulfilled at Pentecost, when the heavens will be open again and the Spirit will descend upon the community (Acts 2). The fact that the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a clove (v. 22) refers to many things. One is the Messianic gift to the bestowed on the Church at Pentecost. More pertinent to our beginning of the Church year, though is the picture in the first pages of the Bible of the morning of the first creation, when the breath of God (ruah elohim) flew to and fro like a bird above the primordial waters as a power of fruitfulness and life. Now, at the beginning of the New Testament, with Jesus’ baptism heralding a new creation, we see the Spirit coming upon Jesus.

The God who revealed Himself at Jesus’ baptism is one who shatters the categories within which we try to contain Him. He’s a God Who’s to be found in the wilderness of our lives and who aligns Himself with the poor. His voice here in the wilderness where John was baptizing may have been an epiphany even for Jesus. For the first time in his humanity, Jesus may have realized the unique relationship that he had with the heavenly Father.

For the other hearers, the voice of the Father brought recognition that Jesus is the beloved of God who not only bears the sins of the world, but will also take them away. Jesus is the Servant of the Lord of whom Isaiah spoke in today’s First Reading (42:1). The opening of the eyes of the blind foretold in Isaiah represents an end to suffering that’s due to humankind’s creaturely status, whereas the setting free of captives marks an end to people’s suffering at the hands of other human beings.

Judaism never considered that the role of Suffering Servant and of Messiah would be combined in one person. Yet the words of the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism are the same as the first words of the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah, some of which was today’s First Reading. (Isaiah’s “chosen one” [v. 1] is the same as Luke’s “beloved Son” [v. 22].) Because the Servant is an ideal individual as well as the representative of the final community of the Lord, through his baptism Jesus is declared to be thoroughly human. Because of his total union with all human weakness, the Servant Jesus must descend into human death, so as to infuse a new life into every area of humankind’s existence.

St Peter was sufficiently impressed by the awe of this occasion that he later wrote of that unique declaration that came to Jesus out of the majestic splendour, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (2 Pet 1:17). Peter preached that message over and over again. The last recorded time was his preaching to the Gentiles in today’s Second Reading. His message on this occasion was, first, that Jesus was the fulfilment of the words from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. Secondly, God shows no partiality (v. 34) for Jews over non-Jews. Rather, all over the world whoever acts uprightly out of her or his respect for God is acceptable to God (v. 35).

Peter preached that what had been reported about Jesus of Nazareth (v. 37), beginning with the marvels of his baptism shows that God’s revelation of His plan for the destiny of humankind culminated in Jesus. Jesus’ whole ministry and message are integral parts of God’s revelation. And the Spirit of God is with him, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power” (v. 38). By Jesus’ being “anointed”, Peter means his baptism.

Jesus’ baptism is one of the four parts of the Church’s primitive religious instructions (the other parts being his death, resurrection, and ascension). When the Gospel message was standardized around 50 A.D., Jesus’ baptism was, indeed, the first part of the message. Perhaps one reason for this was to reach the unconverted followers of John the Baptist. Another purpose was to show who Jesus is. We’re the heirs of 2,000 years of Christian reflection that led us to know that Jesus is the divine Son of God, but that was not so clear in Jesus’ time.

Our baptism is as awe-inspiring a phenomenon as was Jesus’. Through baptism, we’ve become branches of Jesus the vine (J 11 152117). Through baptism, we’ve achieved death to sin and life in God (Rom 6:1-23). Through baptism, we became members of the body of Christ — part of the People of God. Through baptism, we’re incorporated into the death and resurrection of Christ. Through baptism, we’re adopted as children of God, having the Spirit dwell within us. We must be open to the Spirit and remain faithful to our calling.

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