With this week's liturgy, we will conclude the Christmas Season and go back to Ordinary Time. How strange though that we end the season of Christmas, where Jesus comes to us as a baby, with an event that takes place when Jesus is a man. Shouldn’t we still be focusing on the infant Jesus?
While initially this may seem strange to us it actually has a significant purpose in the liturgical life of the Church and more importantly, for each and every one of us. The Baptism of the Lord is the first experience when God speaks to his people directly about Jesus. It is in this moment that we are given a clear indication that Jesus is the Son of God. It is also in this moment that Jesus begins living publicly again.
This pericope of sacred scripture comes to us from the 3rd chapter of Luke’s Gospel. The only events Luke has recounted to us before this involves the beginnings of Jesus’ life. In fact, the last thing Luke told us about Jesus was that Mary and Joseph took him to Bethlehem where, “Jesus advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” This event is for us a link between the child Jesus and the man who has matured under the care of Joseph and Mary. This event is also a recognition of the mission that the child Jesus came to live out for each of us. Let’s look at this event closer and see what St. Luke is trying to get across to us. St. Luke tells us that John was baptizing “all the people” as a way to help them prepare their hearts to welcome the Savior. Their hearts needed preparing, because they were full of selfishness, doubt, arrogance, greed, and all the other spiritual diseases infecting human nature ever since original sin.
Christ’s heart, however, was pure. So he didn’t need to prepare himself for the Savior’s coming, after all he was the savior; he didn’t need to be baptized. And yet, he got in line with the rest of the sinners and submitted to the ritual. Why would he do such a thing?
The answer is hidden in today’s First Reading, from the prophet Isaiah: “…a bruised reed he [the Messiah] shall not break,” the prophet tells us, “and a smoldering wick he shall not quench.” A bruised reed is a useless reed; a smoldering wick is a useless wick – at least, from a purely natural perspective. And from a purely natural perspective, we fallen human beings are also useless.
But God’s perspective is supernatural. He sees our misery, our inner ugliness, our selfishness, our sinfulness, our rebellion, our spiritual leprosy, and instead of being repelled by it, he comes right into our midst. He actually takes our part, putting himself as close to us as possible, sharing even in our sufferings. He so eagerly desired to reunite us with the Father, that he became our brother; that’s the meaning of his baptism.
That’s how deeply he longs for our friendship. He knows it’s hard for us to trust him and follow him, so he decided to come and walk by our side along the rough and dangerous paths of life, to be our strength in times of struggle, to assure us that he will never forsake us. That’s why he took our place in the waters of baptism, and also on the wood of the cross.
By being baptized, even though he had no need to be cleansed from sin himself, Jesus takes our place. And we in turn, when we are baptized, are called to take Jesus' place, to become "sons in the Son" as one ancient writer put it. The sacrament of baptism, then, is the gateway to the rest of Christian life.
From the moment of baptism, our life-mission no longer consists of mundane things like becoming successful in the eyes of the world, making a lot of money, become famous and powerful, or maximizing our experience of life's pleasures. Those are the life-goals of pagans. But we who are Christians have two very different life-goals, and all our other activities are directed towards achieving them.
First, holiness. Holiness is God's word for happiness. It consists first in following the moral law that God built into human nature – the Ten Commandments and the moral teachings of the Church. And secondly, pursuing holiness also involves growing in our friendship with Jesus Christ through daily prayer, the sacraments, and our efforts to follow his example. This pursuit of holiness is the primary life-goal of every Christian, not just priests, monks, and nuns.
But in addition to pursuing holiness ourselves, our baptism gave us another life-goal, namely that of bringing other people into God's family. We are Christ's ambassadors in the world; we are his apostles. As his followers, we are, like him, as Isaiah describes it in today's First Reading, "the light of the world." And through our words, actions, and example, each one of us is called to lead others into friendship with the Lord. Today, I give you a challenge which Pope Francis gave in 2014 when speaking about baptism:
I will allow myself to give you some advice... but, more than advice, a task for today. Today, at home, go look, ask about the date of your Baptism and that way you will keep in mind that most beautiful day of Baptism. To know the date of our Baptism is to know a blessed day. The danger of not knowing is that we can lose awareness of what the Lord has done in us, the memory of the gift we have received. Thus, we end up considering it only as an event that took place in the past – and not by our own will but by that of our parents – and that it has no impact on the present. We must reawaken the memory of our Baptism. We are called to live out our Baptism every day as the present reality of our lives. If we manage to follow Jesus and to remain in the Church, despite our limitations and with our weaknesses and our sins, it is precisely in the Sacrament whereby we have become new creatures and have been clothed in Christ.
–Pope Francis, January 8, 2014
Today, let's thank Jesus for coming down to our level and taking our place, and let's renew our commitment to our twofold life-mission of holiness and apostolate and let us live out our baptismal call every day of our lives.