HOMILY: The Baptism of the Lord: January 11, 2015
Fr. Charlie Fox, Spiritual Director, St. Paul Street Evangelization (www.streetevangelization.com)
Sharing in Christ’s goodness and mission
The British Catholic author G.K. Chesterton was a prolific writer during the first half of the 20th Century. And he was a great defender of the Catholic Faith and traditional Western Civilization. Once, The Times newspaper of London solicited essays from some of the major writers of that period under the topic “What’s Wrong with the World?” and Chesterton offered the briefest response:
In an age of finger-pointing and contention such as we live in today, we might wonder what Chesterton’s problem was in offering such an answer. Low self-esteem? Pessimism? A troubled childhood expressing itself through his pen?
In fact, his answer reflected none of these things, but rather a simple truth about the human condition—that the modern psychological slogan “I’m okay; you’re okay” does not quite hit the mark. If we were left to ourselves, it would be closer to the mark to say, “I’m a doomed sinner; you’re a doomed sinner.”
Now, I purposely said, “If we were left to ourselves.” Of course, we have not been left on our own! Jesus has come to save us from what we would have been without Him and to give us an identity, a destiny, and a mission with Him. And we see both of these things beginning to happen in today’s Gospel account of Jesus’ baptism. We just heard that when He came up out of waters of the Jordan River, Jesus “saw the heavens being torn open.” One Scripture scholar has written of this text, “God has ripped the heavens apart irrevocably at Jesus’ baptism, never to shut them again. Through this gracious gash in the universe, he has poured forth his spirit into the earthly realm.”
So what happens to us with ripping open of the heavens and the pouring forth of God’s Spirit on the earth?
First, we receive a new identity. When we hear the Father’s voice saying, “This is my beloved Son,” those words are for Jesus, but they become words for us as well. Jesus is not going through baptism because He needs it, but because we need it. And His going through it prepares the way for us to go through it. In Baptism, we become God’s sons and daughters—no longer separated from God by sin, no longer spiritual “losers.” A baptized person is, by definition, a winner, sharing in the victory of Jesus. Nothing, except our own choice to commit serious sins, can cut us off from that connection with God, and even then we become reconnected when we go to confession.
Second, sharing in the victory of Jesus through Baptism gives us a destiny with Him. One of the worst things we can say about a person is that “He (or she) will never amount to anything.” That’s really a way to curse someone. For a baptized person, who is faithful to his or her Baptism, that curse is an absurdity. When we live in a way that is faithful to our Baptism, our destiny is secure. And it is a more glorious destiny than anything we could hope to achieve on our own. Jesus says at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel, “I am going to prepare a place for you, so that where I am you also may be.” And St. John writes in his first letter, “We shall become like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
Our destiny is no less than to be with God forever—not just in His general vicinity, but in His very household, as members of His family. The Son of God has come to us in Jesus, so that He could bring us back to Himself. That is the promise of Christmas. And the action of this drama accelerates with the baptism of Jesus, which happens at a kind of “bridge moment” between the hidden years of Jesus’ upbringing in Nazareth and the beginning of His public ministry.
Finally, Baptism calls us and empowers us to share in the mission of Jesus. In the words of today’s first reading, we are called with Jesus to be part of the “victory of justice” in this world, to be “a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”
We cannot be indifferent to the darkness in which so many people live. We cannot be indifferent to their alienation from God or from each other. We cannot be indifferent to injustice or suffering. We need to care, and we need to be confident that our caring is not in vain, because God really does give us the power to do something about what is hurting people. Mostly, it means that God has empowered us to help other people know Him, to love Him, and to experience His power in their lives.
You might ask yourself, “Did I help anyone to love Jesus more last year? Did I help anyone to be a better Catholic?” If not, you’ve got your New Year’s resolution! God wants us to take good care of our bodies, but He wants more people to love Him a heck of a lot more than He wants you to lose five pounds or eat more broccoli.
And it always needs to be said that we are never alone in doing what God asks of us. The Eucharist we celebrate today is the source of our strength for performing the mission God has given us. In the Eucharist, the Child of Bethlehem, the Man baptized in the Jordan River, and the God Who loves us enough to die for us comes into us and kindles His love in our hearts.
So as we consider this great mystery, at the close of this Christmas Season, let us be full of confidence and hope—not pessimistic, not foolishly optimistic—but realistic and hopeful, recognizing: I am not so great, but (using the words of Mary’s Magnificat) “The Almighty has done great things for me.” And through me—through you—He can great things for other people.
[Pictured: Francesco Albani, “Baptism of Christ”, 17th Century]