Today, we officially end our Christmas season with the Baptism of our Lord. Tomorrow, we'll once again move from the white liturgical color of Christmas to the green of ordinary time. Jesus' baptism is an important event in his life; it’s an important moment in the life of our Church as well. In the Gospels, Jesus' baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry and his proclamation of God's kingdom.
As we celebrate Jesus' baptism today, we might ask ourselves: Why would Jesus have to be baptized anyway if he was the Son of God and already free from sin? What insights can we learn from Jesus' baptism. And what does our own baptism really mean for us in our daily lives?
Those in the crowd who came to John the Baptist were baptized in repentance for their sins, yet Jesus had no sins that needed repentance. John baptized them so they could turn away from sin, but this also pointed to something much greater, to Jesus, who would take on humanity's sins and who would pay for them by making God’s forgiveness available to all who seek it. John pointedly tells the crowd: “I'm baptizing you with water...He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Jesus was baptized publicly not only in recognition of his role in our redemption and in taking away our sins, but also to reveal his identity as God's Son. After Jesus’ baptism and the time he spends in prayer, the Holy Spirit descends upon him and the voice of the Father comes forth, calling him his beloved Son.
Jesus' baptism is at the heart of his mission to heal us, in identifying with our sinfulness, our brokenness, and our human nature. Jesus' baptism and his identification with our human condition help us recall our own baptism and the promise and hope that comes with it. Our Catholic faith is rich in symbols as powerful aides and reminders. Water is one of our most meaningful symbols, reminding us of the new life we receive from Christ in the water of baptism. We have a water font as we come into church– I see so many parishioners use that water to make the sign of the cross as they enter and exit the church. I see parents showing their children how to make the sign of the cross with the holy water. Sometimes, when I go to visit the sick or shut-ins, I carry a container of holy water in order to bless them and to remind them of our baptismal promises, of how Christ the Good Shepherd leads us to streams of living water. I also have this - what looks like a pen - but in reality is a holy water sprinkler. When I first became a priest used this, some of the moms and their children, they called it my James Bond Holy Water, because they said it looks like something a spy would use to hide his holy water. The point is that water is a very earthy symbol for us as human beings, reminding us that our human existence is tied to the water that makes life on earth possible and that from a spiritual perspective, the baptismal water gives us new life in Christ.
Our celebration of Jesus' baptism also recalls our prophetic tradition and those who prepared the way for Christ and for all of his followers. In the midst of Israel's exile in Babylon, the prophet Isaiah cries out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord almost 6 centuries before Christ's birth. Isaiah foretells of a mighty event in which God will reveal his glory, of the coming of his servant who will justice to all the nations. Just as Isaiah's prophesy prepares the people for God's glory, John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus' ministry in the midst of a wilderness as well. In many ways, John the Baptist is placed in the middle - he points back to Isaiah's prophecies and points forward to Jesus - connecting the past with the future in God's plan of salvation.
In our own baptisms, in our own lives of faith, we all have many people who point us to Jesus, who connect us to God's plan of salvation. A priest I know recently challenged his congregation to think about all those who nurtured them and prepared them in the faith, who pointed them to Christ. Jesus had his family who taught him in the ways of the faith, just as most of us had parents, godparents, and other family members present us for baptism as infants, who raised us and formed us to be believers. Yet, we also had others outside of our extended family who prepared us in the faith, who were examples and inspirations for us. I recently wrote to a professor I had at Ole Miss and one of my fellow missionaries from my days up in Canada working at the soup kitchen. I had not been in touch with them for a while. I also wrote to a teacher I had back in high school. I see all three of these individuals as great examples of our faith, as believers who really try to live out Christ’s Gospel in their lives. I wanted them to know that I still remember and appreciate them, and in many ways they have influenced the way I have lived out my own faith as well. As we end our Christmas season and our celebration of Christ's birth, as we return to ordinary time before the beginning of Lent, perhaps it would be good for us to think of the people in our lives who have connected us to our faith, having nurtured us and prepared a path to Jesus for us much like John the Baptist did for Jesus' ministry. It would be a be a wonderful way to remember our baptism and to commemorate Jesus' baptism if we recalled those individuals, If we wrote at least one of them a letter this week, or spoke to them, expressing our gratitude for the role they had in fostering our faith.
Through the new life in Christ that we gained in our baptism, through the baptism of Jesus that we celebrate today, may we all try to live that new life with passion and dedication in a way that is truly worthy of our calling as followers of Our Lord Jesus Christ.