The Baptism of the Lord (Year A)
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Psalm 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10
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?”
The 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. We 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. God 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.