1/12/2014, Baptism of Jesus

Every year, the readings from the Judeo-Christian scriptures engage us in a systematic retelling of the story of our faith.  These stories also provide the basis for the symbols and rituals we use to give physical expression to the sacramental graces of our Christian faith.   These ancient  rituals and symbols were assigned meaning so that over many centuries Christians could celebrate with continuity of communal faith.  But the stories and rituals and symbols also take on individual meanings that deepen and grow with our experience of the faith they represent.  And every time we hear the stories and repeat the rituals again, they  take on new meaning in the context of the life experience we have had since the last hearing of the story.


We entered a new cycle of scriptural storytelling in December. We prepared for the birth of the Christ (that’s Advent), it happened (that’s Christmas) the Magi came to worship, indicating the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan of redemption for all humankind (that’s Epiphany.)


With today’s story, we are invited into Jesus’ adult life with the story of his baptism.  The story and the symbols of water, dove and immersion that are still used to celebrate this sacramental ritual draw us to consider what’s going on in today’s lectionary readings.


In the 3rd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is baptized. More than a simple religious moment, this is a story about Jesus leaving behind his former life as a carpenter and being initiated into a new life of purpose as God’s servant.  Jesus comes to John and asks for baptism.  His immersion in water, which is a symbol of death, indicates that he is giving up his past life. As the gospel writer tells it, a dove descended upon Jesus during this event. The dove symbolized for Jews purity and harmlessness. In this story, it signifies that the Spirit with which Jesus was endowed was one of innocence and non-violence.


Jesus’ baptism was an initiation into his identity.  The words of the prophet Isaiah name this identity:  Christ was to be a servant for the cause of justice.     Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight, I have endowed you with my spirit ;that you may bring true justice to the nations.


When we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism, it’s a good time to reflect on how his baptismal story becomes our story. Christian doctrine teaches that in our baptisms, we die to our life of self and are raised to new life in Christ.  It’s not accidental that on this first Sunday of Ordinary Time in our new church year, we hear again the story of Jesus’ baptism. 


As a new calendar year begins for us, many of us think about what we’d like to do differently. We consider whether or not we are living in a healthy way.  We consider how to improve relationships.  We consider whether we are living with purpose.  It’s also a time to think about our own baptismal identity.  What does our baptism call us to be?  Do we understand our identity in Christ and are we living out that identity with purposeful intention?

Many adults still think of their baptism simply as the rite that removed original sin from their baby soul.  Infant baptism doesn’t seem to affect how adults think about their everyday lives.  How is a baby supposed to know what it’s life call is?  One grows into that self-knowledge  through the experiences of life.  So perhaps it’s a good time to ask ourselves if getting rid of sin was actually the point of Jesus’ baptism or of our own baptisms.

 Jesus was a Jew, as was his baptizer John.  Jews understood that baptism was a cleansing rite indicating repentance.  To repent is to turn away from one way of being and to choose another way.  That decision has to happen again and again and again as we walk life’s path, doesn’t it? For Jews,  baptism was not a rite that could happen only once in a person’s life. 

 In pre-Christian times, both pagan and Jewish religions saw water as a cleansing, purifying agent. To be immersed into water initiated changes from one state of existence to another. Biblical stories like the creation, the great flood, the journey of Jews through the waters of the Red Sea… all of them are symbolic of the change from one way of life to another.  They are baptism stories in the history of God’s people.   Just so, the baptism of Jesus at age 30 commenced his lifelong commitment to live as God’s servant.  Baptism for us becomes a symbolic acknowledgment that we’ve been affirmed by God just as Jesus was.  Every time we touch that baptismal water to our bodies, we reaffirm who we are in Christ.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us this about our baptismal identity:

( 897) …The faithful, who by Baptism are incorporated into Christ and integrated into the People of God, are made sharers in their particular way in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly office of Christ, and have their own part to play in the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the World."

Baptism then does much more than wash away our past failures, or the sins of our ancestors.  Baptism calls us to share the service of Christ’s identity as prophet, priest and king. The passage from Isaiah 42 describes the prophet-priest-king work of Christ that becomes ours in baptism “I have appointed you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of those who are blind, to free captives from prison, and those who live in darkness from the dungeon.”   

Beginning with Christ, many injustices have been righted and much progress has been made in bringing God’s Kingdom to fullness.  Yet, there are still unjust situations for the Body of Christ to address.

So as this year begins, renew the Christian story in yourself by taking small steps towards becoming the light that your baptism calls you to be.  Maybe you can make a commitment to give up one restaurant meal a week and give the money to the food bank… or give up one homecooked meal a month and during those hours, serve and share a meal with folks at the soup kitchen.  Maybe you could volunteer to help out with citizenship classes this year.  Maybe you are being called to visit those in prison or to become a hospice volunteer to bring comfort to the dying.  Many of you are already involved in things like this.  The point is that baptism is a lifelong commitment to growing deeper and deeper into Christlikeness by taking up his identity as a servant to the cause of justice.

There’s always a blessed bowl of water on the table that holds the elements of our Eucharistic sacrament.  Remember your baptism when you enter into community and when you go out to the world. Each time you engage that simple ritual of touching water to your head, your heart and your body, remind yourself that your baptism calls you to deeper and deeper service in the cause of being a light to the world, bringing freedom to captives and sight to the blind.   

By Sandi DeMaster