The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
Have you ever felt that something you were doing was going so badly that you just wished you could start all over? Or maybe your life is not going that well and you realize that you are just not the person you should be. I would bet that most of us have had this feeling at one time or another… maybe more than once.
All you who golf are surely familiar with the term “mulligan”! How many times have you had a terrible drive off the first tee and then sheepishly said, “I’ll take my mulligan”? For those of you who do not golf, that means the person intends to start his game over and pretend his bad drive did not count. Another popular idiom of the day is “do-over”… I want a do-over!
At the time of Christ, Israel (and by extension all of us) definitely needed a “mulligan”… a “do-over”. Throughout Salvation History, God has granted His people opportunities to start anew… to begin again.
Way back at the time of the fall of mankind, God went to work, so-to-speak, preparing mankind for Redemption. And at the time of Noah, when we could not sink any lower, our Merciful Father granted mankind and creation a new beginning when He saved the righteous Noah and his family (and by extension all of us) in an ark through the waters of The Flood. Later, He would lead the Israelites out of Egypt, saving them from Pharaoh by parting the waters of the Red Sea. After years wandering in the desert, the Israelites would be led by God into the Promised Land across the waters of the Jordan River where they were given a great victory at Jericho, just north of the Dead Sea. Yes, God Our Father has given us many “do-overs” throughout our history, but none quite like what we celebrate on this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
The history of God’s chosen people passed through many ups and downs and at the time of the coming of the Lord, they had been experiencing a spiritual darkness for centuries, awaiting the coming of the Messiah Who would save them.
Today’s feast brings to an end our liturgical season of Christmas during which we have recalled the coming into the world of Jesus, the Light of the World, Who would dispel the spiritual darkness that had hold of our lives.
Today we celebrate the inauguration of the Kingdom of Heaven and the first beginnings of the public ministry of Jesus manifested at His Baptism. Jesus would, in His life, re-live the life of Israel, fulfilling in righteousness all that the Israelites had failed to do.
There are no words of Sacred Scripture that are superfluous, no acts of our Savior that are without meaning. Our Lord submitted to be baptized by John and did so at this particular place on the Jordan, not for His sake, but for our sake. So what can we learn? Our Lord shows us by His example what we are to do and does so in a way that would be instantly recognizable to the Israelites who witnessed or heard of the event. For you see, Jesus’ baptism took place at the place that is not only the lowest spot below sea level on earth, but is also where the Israelites were first led to their victorious entry into the Promised Land. At His baptism, Jesus is already reliving the life of Israel… He is beginning anew for them… beginning His saving work using the same signs by and through which God’s people had so many times been saved before… by and through water.
There is too little space here to outline all the elements of this event that should have given the Israelites great hope and consolation… John the Baptist, his words, his manner, his clothing… among many others, but believe me, these elements are present, plentiful and powerful if you care to find a good commentary and study them. Instead, let’s review just a few observations, some made by Pope Benedict in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, and in doing so discover much food for prayerful meditation:
Jesus’ insistence on being baptized has to be understood in view of righteousness.
- Righteousness is man’s response to the Torah
- It is bearing the yoke of God’s Kingdom
- Jesus acknowledges John’s baptism as an expression of that response… that unqualified yes to God
The baptism administered by John to those who asked… the descending into the waters of the Jordan is:
- A confession of guilt
- A plea for forgiveness
- A conversion to a new beginning
- An expression by the one being baptized of solidarity with all of sinful mankind
So what was it that Jesus did at His baptism by John?
- Jesus prayed while being baptized
- He took the burden of fallen man’s sins and guilt on his own shoulders
- He bore that burden down into the waters of the Jordan River
- He sanctifies the waters by which we are purified
- He began his public ministry by stepping into the place of sinners
- This anticipates the cross
- It is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity
At the Incarnation, God became man. At the Jordan, God approached man. This great act of humility teaches all who would follow Christ that they, too, must approach God in the same humility.
Jesus thus would refer to his own death as his baptism cf Mk 10:38 and Lk 12:50. God’s heavenly voice is an anticipation of the Resurrection. When we are baptized…
- The point where Jesus anticipates his death, we anticipate our rising with him
- Jesus’ baptism is the repetition of history… it recapitulates the past (Israel’s past) and anticipates the future (our future) in solidarity with us, he breaks the abyss and dispels the darkness
- He does what we had been unable to do… and he does so in all his work from his baptism to his cross to his rising
- This elevates the “conversion” of John’s baptism to the transforming grace of conversion in sacramental baptism
Jesus’ baptism, his descent into and ascent from the abyss of death is a theology of the cross… as Jesus came up from the waters, heaven was opened… heaven stands open above Jesus who fulfilled all righteousness.
The Father proclaims the mission of Christ (who he is, not what he does). The mystery of the Trinity emerges at the very start of His public ministry and is manifested again with the Great Commission given his apostles (Mt 28:19) where He instructs them to preach the Gospel and baptize believers.
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)
Baptism is the ultimate “mulligan”. By the power of the Holy Spirit, in baptism we are born again to new life, our sins are forgiven, and we are incorporated into the Body of Christ. In new life, the baptized are called to give witness to their faith and do the work of the Lord. The baptism of the Church, then, is an admission into the baptism of Christ. As the Baptism of Christ at the Jordan is intimately connected to His Sacrifice on the Cross, so is our Baptism strengthened and nourished at our participation in Holy Mass and our receiving of Holy Communion. And should we again fall, our Merciful Father gives us yet another opportunity to start anew in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
There is never a time in this life that God, Who became man in order to make all things new, does not grant us the gift to start over. May He ever be praised and given all glory. Amen.
Into the deep…
Deacon Mike Bickerstaff, Editor-in-Chief for The Integrated Catholic Life™, is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization at his parish and a deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
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