Homily: Baptism of the Lord – Cycle A
Last year was kind of a whirlwind year for the Catholic Church. The historic retirement of Pope Benedict XVI probably garnered him more headlines and news time than any of his speeches, encyclicals, or other statements (perhaps, even more than all of those combined!). Then the world debated over and then waited for the election of our new Pope, Francis. Nobody really had Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio on their radars and so the first surprise of Benedict’s retirement was amplified by the surprise of who the cardinals elected to replace him. Then, things became really interesting as Pope Francis’ outgoing personality and protocol-breaking behavior has given us one surprise after another for the rest of the year. In a media culture in which news about an event such as how sections of a whole nation got wiped out by the strongest typhoon seen anywhere for a few generations gets but a couple of weeks of attention, the fact that Pope Francis has stayed in the eyes of the media pretty consistently for nine months is saying something about the impact he has already had on the public at large.
And how has he done that? By standing on the loggia (which is the balcony on which the new pope stands to greet the people in Saint Peter’s Square) and immediately shouting out pronouncements that he was going to change the church and the world? Or by immediately firing everyone in the Vatican in order to make way for his people to step in and change how things are done? Or by cracking the whips on bishops who don’t “toe the line” on his policies (however new and/or different they might be)? No. Rather, he’s done it by being… what… humble, right? (That’s what everyone keeps saying to me: “I love Pope Francis, because he just seems so humble.”) And rightfully so. Pope Francis stood on the loggia and first asked the people to pray for him. He went to the Vatican City parish to celebrate Mass and greet people on the Sunday after his election. He welcomes workers from the Vatican to come and celebrate daily Mass with him in his chapel. He visits with the infirm, the imprisoned, and the invisible (the folks “at the margins” as he likes to call them). He condemns no one, but invites everyone to turn to Jesus so as to come to know him (and to be known by him).
He doesn’t shout or cry out, he isn’t making his voice heard in the streets, the bruised reed he doesn’t break and the smoldering wick he does not quench. It certainly sounds like the servant of the Lord that Isaiah sings about in our first reading. Pope Francis, I’m sure, would say that it’s an image of Jesus and that he is just striving to make that image visible in the world. And that is exactly what the Liturgy is giving us today by placing this reading in the context of the Mass celebrating the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In other words, we are meant to see the fulfillment of this prophesy from Isaiah in Jesus.
As we recount the somewhat familiar story of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan by John the Baptist, we are reminded that Jesus came forward, not to shun John’s baptism or in some way to denounce it, but rather to submit himself to it; because, as he said, it was fitting for them to “fulfill all righteousness.” And so we see that Jesus did not come shouting, crying out, or making his voice heard in the street; but rather he came in humility so as to show from the very beginning that to lead was to serve and to submit yourself to the ways of God.
Of course, Jesus came to be baptized at the inauguration of his public ministry and so when the heavens opened after he emerged from the water and the Spirit of God descended upon him and the voice from heaven said “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”, we are meant to see in that the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy, which states: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit.” Thus, we are also to expect of Jesus what is prophesied of the servant’s works: that he will “establish justice on the earth” and that he will “open the eyes of the blind, bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” What we are also meant to see, however, is the importance of baptism.
Jesus, as we know, had no need of baptism. John the Baptist recognized that and so do we. He had no personal sin, which is what John’s baptism was meant to cleanse, and he certainly did not suffer from the stain of Original Sin and so he would not need a baptism to be cleansed from that. The importance of Jesus’ baptism lies not in those things that we all need baptism for, but rather in a third aspect, which we too all enjoy: the election by God and the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
In our own baptism, just like in Jesus’ baptism, we were each claimed by God as his sons and daughters and we were anointed with God’s Spirit for his holy purpose: to become saints and to fulfill his work of bringing about his Kingdom here on earth. Baptism, therefore, makes us different. It isn’t just some empty ritual that we do as a way of showing membership in our community (or as a way of showing off our babies to the congregation); rather, it changes us; it marks us as different, as belonging to God. (As I reflected on this I thought of the old Dymo® label makers: you know the ones that would emboss letters into plastic tape with an adhesive back and which most often made labels reading “Property of …” Baptism marks us like this, only much more permanently.) Thus, as God’s adopted sons and daughters, we are then called by God to go out, like Jesus did, to establish justice on the earth by how we live and work every day.
Baptism, therefore, is the beginning of something new. Whether you were baptized as an infant, an adolescent, or an adult, you were born anew in baptism. Thus, just as Jesus left behind the carpenter shop in Nazareth to take up his ministry of preaching and healing, so we, too, must leave behind our old lives before baptism to take up the vocation that God has called us to so as to continue Jesus’ ministry here on earth. And just as each year we remember the baptism of Jesus here at Mass, so too should each of us remember and celebrate the date of each of our baptisms, for it is the day even more important perhaps than our birthdays: the day in which we were born into the eternal life that Christ won for us.
My brothers and sisters, it’s no mistake or coincidence that we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord at the end of Christmastime and the beginning of Ordinary Time: for just as Jesus inaugurated his public ministry by first being baptized by John in the Jordan, so too do we go forth into the time of year in which we renew our efforts to “order” our lives according to Jesus’ model by celebrating the remembrance of that baptism. And just as Jesus then ordered his life according to what was proclaimed at his baptism (“This is my beloved son…”) so too are we called to go forward into Ordinary Time so as to order our lives in the same way.
My brothers and sisters, in this Eucharist, “let us ask the Lord from our hearts to be able to experience ever more in everyday life this grace that we have received at Baptism. So that, by encountering us, our brothers and sisters may encounter true children of God, true brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, true members of the Church”; and that, through this encounter, they too may find the joy of experiencing this same call and election in their own lives.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – January 11th & 12th, 2014
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord