FEAST OF THE BAPTISM OF JESUS
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
Ecumenical Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity, Long Beach, CA
Isaiah 55:1-11 Psalm 29:1-2;3-4;9-10
Acts 10:34-38 Mark 1:7-11
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Many of you were baptized as infants and can’t remember a thing about it. Others of you were baptized when you were older, and remember it clearly as an important event in your life. But no matter when you were baptized, your Baptism is something you share with Jesus Himself.
Today’s gospel is about His Baptism. Baptism for Jesus was a bit different than it is for Christians. That’s because Jesus was not a Christian. Nor was John the Baptist. Both of them were Jews. You may be surprised that baptism did not originate with Christianity, but was a Jewish custom. In first-century Judaism, Baptism had a different meaning than it does for us. In the Book of Leviticus, God instructs Jews to cleanse themselves from ritual impurities, such as those contracted through such acts as touching a corpse or a leper. Such a ceremonial washing fulfilled the legal requirements of ritual purity, so that Jews could properly offer sacrifices at the Temple. A washing was also done when someone not born Jewish converted to Judaism. Baptism in the Jewish world was known as a “Mikveh” and was done by immersion of one’s entire body three times in water. This cleansing was typically done in water in pools near the Temple in Jerusalem as well as in natural bodies of water. A place where Baptism occurred was called a “Mikvaot.”
The chief item of significance in the ceremony, for Jews, was the water. John the Baptist baptized Jesus with water. For Christians, however, not only is water involved, but the action of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was baptized, the nature of Baptism changed. Today’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit like a dove descended upon him. In the Catholic tradition, when a person is baptized, a priest or deacon administering Baptism uses holy oil to trace the sign of the cross on the candidate’s forehead, sealing the newly baptized person with the Holy Spirit, and marking that person as Christ’s own forever. The anointing part of the Baptism ceremony welcomes the candidate into the fellowship of the Church community to share life in the life of the Risen Christ.
Saint Paul the Apostle tells us that Baptism makes us part of the Body of Christ and unites us to Christ, and makes us part of His dying and rising. Union with Christ involves the reception of the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God. Baptism, for Paul, brings into existence, and establishes, the People of God, formed through union with Christ in His Spirit. No matter what denomination of Christian you are or were, no matter how wealthy you are, no matter what your race, nationality, gender or sexual orientation, we are all baptized into the one Body of Christ.
The word “Baptism” comes from the Greek word, “baptein’ meaning “to be overwhelmed”. When we are dipped in water, we are overwhelmed. We then rise out of the water. Figuratively, we die, and we rise. In Baptism, we die to sin, and we are reborn to new life, just as Jesus died and rose on Easter. We become new creations, formed from water and the Holy Spirit.
Because Baptism relates us to the Easter event, the ancient tradition of the Church is that Baptism is especially meaningful when done at the Easter Vigil, which celebrates the passing over of Jesus from death to life. Your Baptism was your Passover, where you passed from death to life, from our sinful selves, to our new selves, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. When we are baptized, we leave our old selves behind and become new people.
In Baptism, God adopted us as His children, and as part of that adoption, we made a covenant, or promises to God, called the Baptismal Covenant, which if you were an infant, your parents or god-parents made for you. Chief among those promises was to renounce evil of every kind and to persevere in resisting evil. At least symbolically, whatever in you that was evil died when you were baptized. But given the temptations of this world, resisting evil is quite difficult. For example, many people instinctively want to retaliate against someone who wrongs us, or to punish, instead of forgive, someone who commits a bad act. We forget what Jesus taught forgiveness, not retaliation or punishment. When we do that, we forget we are living in fellowship with Christ. Even after baptism, we are still human persons who sometimes make mistakes.
Just as God commissioned Jesus at his Baptism for His ministry to the world, when you were baptized, you also became a minister to the family of humanity. You became a sacramental reality. You became a walking, talking, living sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. You took on a commitment to live as a Christian. The ministry of all baptized persons is to bear witness to Jesus in how we live in relationship to others. It means not judging other people. It means loving your fellow human beings as Jesus loved us. It means forgiving others as God forgives us. It means getting off your donkey and being there for your neighbor in time of need. And above all, it means respecting the dignity of every human person in everything you do and say. None of that is easy, and sometimes our emotions tell us to do otherwise. That is why the Church has the Sacrament of Reconciliation, of confession, to repent, to turn our lives around, to restore us to the relationship we had with God at the moment of our Baptism.
Baptism empowers us to carry out God’s mission, to build God’s kingdom to become one loving family of humanity, without war and division, driven by desires for money and power. Your ministry as a baptized person can be a powerful thing for God’s benefit. We live in a world that is increasingly made of people who don’t go to Church. Unfortunately, the intolerant behavior of many churches has given a bad name to Christianity. You as a baptized person can change that, leading by example for those around you. Your Baptism made you a force for good. Remember that you are a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. AMEN.