Homily: Baptism of the Lord


The Baptism of the Lord (Year A)
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Psalm 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10
Acts 10:34-38
Matthew 3:13-17

Today the Church celebrates the great feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In our liturgical life of the Church, it’s kind of a bridge between Christmas time, which ends with this feast, and Ordinary Time, which begins tomorrow with the Monday of the First Week of Ordinary Time. Today we begin our year-long journey meditating on the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. In the life of Jesus, the Baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The most important question we probably have after listening to our gospel readings is, “If baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, why did Jesus want to get baptized?”

Image result for baptism of the lordThe answer is, “Jesus being baptized is why our baptism forgives our sins.” We see in today’s gospel reading that all three persons of the Holy Trinity are present: the glory cloud of the Holy Spirit, the voice of the Father from the cloud, and the Father acknowledging Jesus as his beloved divine Son. The baptism of Jesus is the total will of God to provide the forgiveness of our sins.

The baptism of Jesus is the beginning of what he came to accomplish: to super-abundantly pay for the debt we owe because of our sins, so that we can be reconciled to God.

St. Matthew, the tax collector, repeatedly uses economic images in his Gospel, and here is one of them: Jesus tells John to baptize him “to fulfill all righteousness.” Everyone who sins, which is all of humanity, owes an infinite debt that we cannot pay. We want to be reconciled with God, to be free of the effects of sin in this life, and have eternal life in heaven. But we fall infinitely short of the entrance fee, which is a heavenly treasure of righteousness. Not only do we not have a heavenly treasure of righteousness, we have an infinite debt of unrighteousness. The earthly mission of Jesus is to pay that debt off for every member of humanity. So he becomes part of humanity, including him into our mess of owing the debt. So as human, he takes on himself the entire debt of all humanity for all time. And as divine, he pays it all, and replaces the infinite debt of unrighteousness with an infinite surplus of righteousness. He has redeemed us from our debt of sin by the price of his crucified body and precious blood, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The debt has been paid, and we are free.

So God gives everyone an offer: show up to the gates of heaven owing an infinite debt, and lacking any heavenly treasure… or… accept Jesus’ payment of your debt, and claim his abundance of heavenly treasure. That’s the greatest offer ever. That’s the one thing that truly matters. So how do we do that?

As he entered into our debt by his baptism, we enter his abundance by our baptism. He takes on our death, and we take on his life. This is the initial mystery of Christian life and the Christian faith. St. Paul proclaims, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” That’s the only ticket that gets anyone into heaven. That’s the power of baptism, and why it’s so urgent to be baptized, and have our children baptized, and invite others to be baptized.

But we have to bear the fruit of the power of baptism—we cannot live in a way that denies the truth and fails in the obligations of our baptism. Our life must bear the marks of the life of Christ: to do his works, love with his love, and live out his truth. We receive the grace of baptism, and cooperate with grace to live it out. That’s the mystery of the Baptism of the Lord, and that’s the mystery of our baptism.

That’s the homily I gave last night, because I had to get over to the Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School Gala that provides all the school’s resources for providing financial assistance to school families. So I needed to be… efficient. But I just want to add some more to that. This is all from Dr. Brant Pitre’s weekly reflection on the Sunday readings. Dr. Pitre is a big fan of typology, which is connecting Old Testament images with their New Testament fulfillment, and I’m a big fan of that too, and a lot of you have said that you really enjoy that, too. So I want to point out an interesting set of connections that I learned about.

First –we have a parallel between Jesus and Solomon, the royal son of King David. In the book of Kings, when Solomon was being prepared to replace his father, it says they bathed him the spring of Gihon, which was the only fresh-water spring for Jerusalem. It was named Gihon after one of the four rivers in the Garden of Eden, symbolizing Jerusalem as a New Eden, where God was present with his people, in the Temple. So the Gihon spring was rich in symbolism, recalling the life-giving waters of the Garden of Eden, before the Fall. Like Solomon, Jesus is taken to a source of sacred water (the Jordan, rich in symbolism) and washed and anointed by priest and prophet. John the Baptist stands in for both roles, since he was clearly the prophet of his day, and was of priestly blood through his father Zechariah.

Second – the Geography. Jesus left the northern region of Galilee and went down to the Jordan, where John was baptizing. The Jordan River was the border that the Israelites had crossed at the end of the Exodus to enter into the Promised Land. Image result for israelites cross the jordanWe know very well that God miraculously parted the Red Sea and led the people on dry land at the beginning of the Exodus. But most of don’t know that the priests carrying the Ark led the crossing of the Jordan River, which then stopped flowing, and God led the people on dry land across the Jordan at the end of the Exodus. So one of the important expectations of the Messiah was to be a sort of New Moses, who would inaugurate a new exodus, from this earthly promised land to the true heavenly Promised Land, and that this new exodus would launch from the same point the original exodus ended: at the Jordan River. By the way, Moses didn’t finish the exodus and lead the people across the Jordan…he died just before that. It was Joshua who led the people into the Promised Land, and in Hebrew, Joshua and Jesus are the same name. So, Jesus, as the New Moses and New Joshua, is going to lead his people all the way from the beginning threshold of the New Exodus (the Jordan) to the threshold of its fulfillment (the gates of heaven). 

Third, when Jesus is baptized, he is anointed by the Holy Spirit descending upon him. Three kinds of people in ancient Israel were anointed for their vocation: priests, prophets, and kings. Jesus will fulfill all three of these roles in his mission as the Messiah: he will offer sacrifice and prayer, as priest, he will bring God’s message of both correction and compassion, as prophet, and he will give God’s law and judge the people and lead them in wisdom and righteousness, as king. Jesus isn’t anointed with oil— Jesus is anointed with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Third, the heavens were opened. We might breeze over that saying well that’s just how the Holy Spirit as a dove came from heaven. But there’s more. The Old Testament (great prophet) Elijah, at the end of his earthly mission, with his successor (and eventually greater prophet) Elisha, divided the Jordan River, walked across, and then the heavens open to take Elijah to heaven. Remember that the Jordan River was split open so that Israel could enter the Promised Land. Now instead of the Jordan opening, the heavens are opening, revealing the nature and destination of the New Exodus, an exodus from this earthly realm to the heavenly realm. And as a bonus, John the Baptist has come in the spirit of Elijah, as Jesus said. And Elijah’s successor was the great Elisha. Jesus is also like a new Elisha. They both begin their ministry at the Jordan River, taking over from their predecessor, both heal the sight of the blind, both heal lepers, both raise the dead.

Fourth, why did the holy spirit descend as a dove? Where did the image of a dove come from? The Old Testament image of a dove comes from Noah and the flood. Image result for noah dove oliveGod flooded the world because it had turned from God, and become proud and corrupt, except for the family of Noah. God washed the infection of sin away by the waters of the flood and recreated the world anew. When the rain stopped, Noah sent a dove out, and it came back with an olive branch, and the olive branch is a symbol of the new creation—that creation has been restored, that new life has sprung up out of the waters of death that were the flood. In the Church’s blessing of the water for the sacrament of baptism, it makes reference to the importance of water in salvation history. It says, “The waters of the great flood you made a sign of the waters of baptism, that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness.” Then, at the end of the blessing, it says, “May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with him to newness of life.” So the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove is the image that connects these two events: the Lord’s baptism; and the end of sin and the beginning of new life. And of course, our baptism into that new life in Christ. The last two lines we heard in our responsorial psalm said, “The LORD is enthroned above the flood; the LORD is enthroned as king forever.

And fifth, our last connection, is all the way back to Abraham’s son Isaac. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. In the last line of the account of the Baptism here, God says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” God had said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there.” Isaac, who is a strong young man, not a child, carries the wood for the offering, and allows himself to be offered according to God’s will. But as we know, God stops Abraham, and provides a ram to be offered instead. So, when Jesus comes up out of the water of his Baptism, and God says: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” this reveals to us that Jesus is also the new Isaac, the new beloved Son, who actually will lay down His life on the wood of the cross at Calvary. Mount Calvary, by the way is also Mount Moriah. So Isaac, and the new Isaac, are offered in the same place. This time, the son isn’t spared by a lamb… this time the son IS ALSO the lamb, who gives his life as a ransom.

So all that is going on, scripturally, behind the scenes, being fulfilled in this mystery of the Baptism of the Lord. So, to go back to the first ending, it’s our mission, then, as the followers of Jesus here in our time and place; to live out the mystery of our own baptism, and the forgiveness and new life given to us; to live the truth of our faith in the way we live, the way we speak, the way we act. Not just for the sake of our own salvation, but for others… for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

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Homily: Epiphany


The Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Ephesians 3:2-3A, 5-6
Matthew 2:1–12

As many of my friends know, I love watching movies. I especially love when movies have a surprise twist, like The Sixth Sense, or The Usual Suspects, where you’re watching it, and near the end you realize… it dawns on you… that the whole story as you know it just got turned sideways, and you have to sort through all the pieces again and reinterpret everything, because you got a new piece of information that changes the meaning of everything, and it’s all going in a direction you never saw coming. There’s some happy brain chemical that gets dispensed to you when you have a sudden realization like that, and everything gets shifted, and you pick up on the shift, and all the pieces fall into place in a whole new and intriguing way. That realization is an example of an epiphany, when you experience an unveiling or manifesting of the truth. And the more pieces that were involved and came together in a new way, and the more important the discovery, the greater the thrill of the epiphany.

One of the things I love about Catholic theology is that everything means a whole bunch of things at the same time, and they’re all related in a whole bunch of ways, and when you’re reading or hearing something and it makes a new connection that you hadn’t thought of, you have that thrill of an epiphany. And we should be thrilled by our faith! Since these kinds of things make me excited about our faith, I try to share them in homilies, because I hope there’s a chance that they make you excited too. I want to do more than just give you the same old explanations. I want them to come alive for you with excitement, and life, and new understanding and insight. And then, because everyone’s lives are different, I leave it up to you to contemplate how the truth in the readings best applies to your own life, and your struggles, and your journey. 

The reason our celebration today is called the “Epiphany” is because it celebrates the unveiling, or the manifestation, of God’s glory revealed in Jesus Christ. In the Christian tradition, the Epiphany is the celebration of three events. First, it celebrates the arrival of the magi, which is the revelation of Christ’s glory (as the Divine King) to the gentiles and the calling of all the nations to faith in Him. Second, it celebrates the baptism of the Lord in the Jordan, which is the revelation of Christ’s glory in his mission as Messiah and as God’s beloved Son. And third, it celebrates the Wedding Feast of Cana, which is the revelation of Christ’s glory to his disciples, a story that ends by saying, “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.” So the Feast day of Epiphany celebrates the unveiling or revelation of Christ in glory to the world. We celebrate the Baptism of the Lord next Sunday, and now Epiphany focuses specifically on the visit by the magi, which is what we heard in the gospel reading.

Who are the magi? They were wise men who studied the world to have universal understanding, and give good counsel based on their knowledge and their understanding of how the world works. They were people who paid attention to the details of the world, and the connections between them. They were scientist-philosopher-theologians (and maybe, but probably not kings). We get the idea that they were kings from prophecies in the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah chapter 60, and Psalm 72. And not by coincidence, those are our First Reading and Responsorial Psalm for today!

Isaiah in our first reading gives joy to Jerusalem: “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you… Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance… Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow… dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.” So there we have a mention of kings, walking in the radiance of Jerusalem’s splendor, as well as caravans bringing gifts of gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praises of the Lord.”

Our Psalm sings, “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.” So here we see kings bringing gifts and paying homage to the King, the Son of David. Myrrh was a resin used in making medicines, ointments, and perfumes. Myrrh is mentioned in the Song of Songs as the Bride and Bridegroom prepare for their wedding. And it was part of the mixture of spices used in the rites of preparing a body for burial.

Related imageSo that, of course takes us to another point of our reading: the gifts. Matthew doesn’t say what the gifts mean, but scholars generally agree that gold represented Jesus as the great King. Frankincense, an incense used in the sanctuary, represented Jesus as High Priest, and the myrrh could mean that Jesus was anointed as the True Prophet, or it could also point to the anointing of Jesus for his death for the forgiveness of sins. Also, Matthew doesn’t say how many magi there were, or if it was just men. It could have been any number, and possibly men or women. We might remember the Queen of Sheba being a great admirer of King Solomon, and she brought him gifts in honor of his wisdom, and there is something much greater than Solomon here. So following the precedent set by the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, the magi could very well have been wise kings (but again, probably not, as Matthew probably would have said they were kings, rather than magi). 

One of the traditions surrounding the feast day of Epiphany is the annual house blessing. If you haven’t had a priest come and bless your house, you should do that. But if it’s already been blessed by a priest, you can share in this Epiphany house blessing tradition. Using a piece of chalk, write on the top of the frame (the lintel) of your door, the letters C M B, with crosses on either side and in between the letters, and then surround that by the year. In this case 20 before and 20 after, because it’s 2020. So it would be 20+C+M+B+20 (some traditions replace the first cross with a star, representing the Star of Bethlehem). The CMB stands for the Latin phrase, Christus Mansionem Benedicat, which means “May Christ bless this house.” But it’s associated with Epiphany because tradition has it that the names of the magi were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, CMB. These come from non-bibilical sources that were much later. By about the 4th century, different regions had different names given to them. But in the 6th century, the emperor Justinian added beautiful mosaics to many churches in the city of Ravenna, and in the church of Saint Apollonare, the mosaics of the wise men have their names above them as the names we now use. 


detail from the image at top, from the church of Saint Apollonare in Ravenna

In honor of this tradition, instead of handing out chalk, we have cards with the Epiphany house blessing on them, available on the table in the vestibule. You can just tape it above your front door, or the door you use the most.

Another tradition surrounding the feast day of Epiphany is Twelfth Night. Although we now celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday after January 1st, so the date of Epiphany changes from year to year, traditionally it was always celebrated on January 6. In the year 567 the Council of Tours proclaimed that the entire period between Christmas and Epiphany should be considered part of the Christmas celebration, creating what became known as the twelve days of Christmas, and the night before Epiphany, or the night of Epiphany, the Twelfth Night, was a great celebration.

In England, a hot mulled apple cider called “wassail” is enjoyed throughout the Christmas season, but especially on Twelfth Night, and door-to-door wassailing (singing Christmas carols) was common (“Here we come a-wassailing…”). William Shakespeare’s play, “Twelfth Night” (though far from reflecting the religious aspect of the occasion) was written to be part of the general celebration of Twelfth Night. 

On Twelfth Night in German speaking countries, the Sternsinger (“star singers”) go around to houses carrying a paper or wooden star on a pole (the Star of Bethlehem). They sing a carol, then write in chalk over the door the blessing we just talked about.

In our present time and place, we have our own Twelfth Night tradition, where the choirs of several Catholic parishes gather in a different church each year and present a beautiful assortment of musical performances. This year, our parish choir, combining with children from the school choir, will be performing in the Twelfth Night concert this afternoon [Sunday, January 6] at 2:00 at Historic St. Mary’s in Lancaster. It would be wonderful to go support them, and to enjoy this wonderful Twelfth Night sacred music tradition.

Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the unveiling—the manifestation—of the glory of our king and lord Jesus, the Christ child rightly worshiped by the magi. Matthew ends our reading by saying that rather than going back to Herod, they departed a different way. That is our Epiphany task as well: to encounter and behold the mystery of Christ. And having prostrated ourselves before his hidden glory, having received the blessing of God, we then depart different, overjoyed, changed by our encounter with him, to go out and be the manifestation of Christ to others.

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