Homily: Baptism of the Lord



Before performing a child’s baptism, the priest approached the young father and said solemnly, “The baptism of your child is a serious step. Are you prepared for it?” “I think so,” the man replied. “My wife has made appetizers and we have a caterer coming to provide for our guests.” “I don’t mean that,” the priest responded. “I mean, are you prepared spiritually?” “Oh, that. Yes. I also got a case of whiskey!”

I guess that’s probably an Irish joke.

So the obvious question about the baptism of Jesus is, “why did Jesus get baptized”?

First, it was a moment of identification with us sinners. John’s baptism of repentance was a human baptism, a baptism of the sorrow for sins. But it could not satisfy the desire it expressed. It was not sacramental. It was simply a voice crying in the wilderness, desiring that which it could not achieve. Jesus joined himself to the people who longed for communion with God, but as humanity, could not reach it.

Second, it was a moment of conviction about his identity and mission. He had heard the voice from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Remember the final verse after the finding of Jesus in the Temple, “And Jesus advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” Now here, Jesus is a man, who had labored beside his father, prayed with his parents, and grew in holiness and virtue. He had been prepared by his life in Nazareth, and of course by his mother, the Immaculate Conception, for the identity she knew he was called to. He now had that affirmation from heaven for himself. And after all that preparation, he was affirmed and ready. He knew what his mission was: to be the suffering servant prophesied in Isaiah. To be the lamb who went to the slaughter that many might be saved by the outpouring of his blood. To be the Good Shepherd: to heal the sick, to seek and restore the lost, to give sight to the blind, to release captives, to feed the flock, to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God, to take onto himself the sins of humanity, that through him, humanity might be taken up to God. He wasn’t baptized because he needed the forgiveness of sins… but because we do. St. Maximus of Turin, in the 3rd century, said, “Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy… For when the Savior is washed, all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages.”

Third, it was a moment of equipment. At his baptism by John, Jesus saw the Holy Spirit descend on him as a dove. It is only in Luke’s gospel, that it is said so concretely: “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” Saint Augustine says, “The Holy Ghost is said to have descended on Christ in a bodily shape, as a dove, not… by reason of His being united to the dove: but… because the dove itself signified the Holy Ghost, inasmuch as it descended when it came upon Him…” and then St. John Chrysostom said, “sensible visions appear for the sake of them who cannot conceive at all an incorporeal nature; … so that, though afterwards no such thing occur, they may shape their faith according to that which has occurred once for all. And therefore the Holy Ghost descended visibly, under a bodily shape, on Christ at His baptism, in order that we may believe Him to descend invisibly on all those who are baptized.” This is to say, that it wasn’t that the Holy Spirit became a dove. Rather, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus appearing as a dove, so that we remember the visible reality of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism, so that we can know that the Holy Spirit continues to descend on us at our baptism, even though we don’t see it. In his baptism, Jesus was equipped with the power of the Holy Spirit in a new way to do the works of the Spirit, to preach the good news of the Kingdom, to heal and to forgive sins, in his earthly mission.

And fourth, it was a moment of decision. At his baptism, he knew fully who he was, he knew fully what he was supposed to do. He knew we needed him to do it for us, because we couldn’t do it for ourselves. And at his baptism, Jesus consented to this. Like his mother before him at the Annunciation, Jesus offers himself as a perfect and unconditional “yes” to the will of the Father.

Why did Jesus get baptized? To give us entry into his own life, his own mission, his own relationship with the Father. Did he have to get baptized? No. But this is the way the Father willed that it should happen: that humanity, whom the Father made as body and spirit, would receive and experience his salvation through the sacraments: through visible signs that we could experience with our bodies, of the true spiritual realities that we can experience only by faith.

As we begin the season of Ordinary Time, it is not “ordinary” in the sense that it’s mediocre and blah (although it can be if you approach it that way). Ordinary time means it’s measured, it’s ordered; and it’s ordered toward our growing in holiness. The green liturgical color for ordinary time is the color associated with the virtue of hope, and the natural color of growth and life. It is time ordered toward our flourishing, which is what Christ came to invite us into. We can’t flourish if we’re bogged down in sin, if we’re trapped in patterns of sinful attachment, if we’re cut off from hope because we have no way to reconcile with God, if we’re stuck in the gloom of meaningless drudgery with no point.

That’s why Christmas is at the beginning of the liturgical year, with the four weeks of spiritual anticipation for it, for him, to come into our gloom, into our drudgery, and our hopelessness, and to set us captives free, to spread the good news of the kingdom of God, to seek the lost, to heal the wounded, and to give us the invitation to eternal life: to give divine meaning to our humanity, to open the gates of paradise to make all of our choices eternally meaningful, for or against our eternal salvation.

To the extent that we are attentive to grace, guiding us to do this and not do that; to the extent that we give God permission to shine his light in the darkness of our shameful sin, that he may free us; to the extent that we worship Him in the Mass, in our personal prayer; in our devotions; to the extent that we embrace our Christian call to be Christians (literally, “little anointed ones”) and witness to the truth and love of Christ (in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy), is the extent to which God will be able to use us for extraordinary things, and we will have a far from ordinary season of ordinary time. You will have a time of grace, a time of growth and hope, a time of flourishing… which is what God has sent Jesus to give us. This is why Jesus was baptized.

A Woman's ConcernThis is a shorter homily than usual, because our parish was honored to have a guest from A Woman’s Concern, Lancaster’s Pregnancy Resource Center, speak at the end of Masses to promote their annual Baby Bottle Blessings fundraising campaign.

The outline of the four reasons given for Jesus’ baptism is by Fr. Tony Kadavil. Fr. Tony recently retired as a priest of the Archdiocese of Mobile, AL, and serves as the chaplain for Sacred Heart Home in Mobile. His homily resources are widely distributed and beautifully pastoral, and I am appreciative of his generosity and support.

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