+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
On a hot day, nothing beats a cold, tall glass of agua con hielo to quench my thirst. Whether you call it water, or agua, H-two-O is always in the news. For the about the past year, the California Drought has dominated the news. Over this past week, however, we’ve gotten more rain, or lluvia, than we ever expected, due to El Niño, a natural warming of the oceans that will bring much heavier than normal rain and snow to California this winter. Flooded streets, mudslides, and snow in the mountains are now facts of life.
Agua is the primary of all earthly creation. If you will recall the first creation story in Genesis, water existed on earth before God made the land. With seventy one percent of the earth’s surface covered by water and the human body consisting of sixty five percent of it, we can reasonably conclude water is one of the prime elements of life on earth. Agua circulates through the land just as it does through the human body, replenishing nutrients and organic matter, while carrying away waste material. In the human body, it regulates the activities of cells, blood and glandular secretions. An average adult body contains about ten gallons of water, and with just a small loss of less than a gallon, a person can suffer from dehydration and numerous other conditions dangerous to one’s health. And, all of us, and many other creatures, are in the watery world of our mother’s wombs before we enter this world. The necessity of agua for life is so significant that astronomers searching the universe for habitable planets on which other human life could possibly exist first look for planets whose conditions would suggest the presence of liquid water. Water, however, can be deadly as well. If you drink too much agua, it will fatally poison you. If it fills your lungs, you will drown and die. Floods kill people and demolish property.
Water has been used for religious purposes since antiquity to symbolize devotion and purity. Those of the Jewish tradition in the days of Jesus were familiar with the use of agua for purification rituals. The Second Temple was surrounded by pools for just that purpose. But the Baptism that John administered was more than that. Unlike the Jewish purification rituals where people washed themselves to purify their bodies, John Baptized others. Further, John intended Baptism for interior purification, that is purification of our rather than bodies. We can see this from the message of John the Baptist to “repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Most important, however, the Baptism by John was intended be a preparation for Baptism by Jesus. Yes, John Baptized with water, but the Baptism of Jesus is one of rebirth, one with the Holy Spirit.
This morning, you were sprinkled with agua to remind you of your baptism. And you can give yourself a similar reminder at any time, by dipping your finger in the font and making the Sign of the Cross. Just as water is part of life, water is part of the Church. The two characteristics of water, that it can bring death as well as life, are why the Church uses it in Baptism. In traditional theology, baptism represented the mystical washing away of original sin. The traditional notion was that everyone’s soul was stained by the sin of Adam and that baptism cleansed the soul from it.
In Baptism, we die to sin and are raised to new life in Jesus. The word “baptism” is derived from a Greek verb baptizein, meaning “to dip’ or “to plunge.” You might recall that the classic definition of a sacrament is, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” In Baptism, the outward and visible sign is the water. Jesus was likely baptized by full immersion, where His entire body was submerged in the water and then lifted out of it. That’s how it’s done by Orthodox Catholics and some Protestants, as a strong demonstration of the meaning of dying and rising in Christ. Here, as a matter of convenience, we pour water on the candidate, but the theology is the same: dying and rising. As Saint Paul writes in the Epistle to the Romans, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” When one is Baptized, death cannot destroy that person. Through our encounter with the waters of Baptism, we have already died once and have acquired everlasting life. We cannot die again. Baptism signifies the death of our sinful nature and our new life of grace.
The Baptism of Jesus, His going down into the water and rising up out of it, previewed what was to come, what was to define Jesus, that is, His death and resurrection, because Baptism is, in essence, death and resurrection personified. As Saint Gregory Nazianzen tells us, Christ at His Baptism “received the sacrament of enlightenment, or rather he enlightens us with his brilliance. He is baptized; let us go down into the water with him so that we may also come up with him.”
The Baptism of Jesus was the first biblical event in the earthly life of Jesus that has the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit together in one place at the same time. The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove from the sky, and God consecrated Jesus as His Son. This event was important to the Jewish nation, since it concerns the divine sonship of an individual human being. This was, as prophesized by Isaiah, who said, “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him.” The action of the Holy Spirit at the Baptism of Jesus made Jesus known as the Messiah to John the Baptist and all the disciples.
Just like it did with Jesus, the Holy Spirit acts at our Baptism as well. In our own Baptism, the minister makes the sign of the cross on the candidate’s forehead with chrism so that the candidate is sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. The Old Testament had often spoken of God as a Father, but only in relation to the Chosen People as a whole as God’s children. Again, that was a preview of what was to come by way of Christian Baptism. As Jesus became God’s beloved Son at His Baptism, we at our Baptism, we became God’s beloved children who will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
Baptism shapes our spirituality. We walk wet, knowing that our Baptism is the door to a new life. When we are baptized, we become members of the Body of Christ. Our decision thereafter is not whether we continue to be baptized persons – once baptized, one cannot be un-baptized – but how do we live out that unchangeable reality? Every day, baptism gives us the power for God’s life to grow and be preserved in us. Thereafter, we can choose to follow Jesus, or not, with all the benefits and hazards those choices entail.
Following Jesus has us realizing that, just as His Baptism commissioned Him for ministry, our Baptism commissions us as ministers. His Baptism began His ministry. Our Baptism begins our ministry. Baptism shapes our Christian identity and the vocation we live. The Baptismal Covenant, which we will all renew today, is our vocational guideline, our ministry plan. As we live out that covenant, we minister to the world around us. Whenever we pray in community, and whenever we attend Mass, we continue in the tradition of the Apostles in prayer and breaking of bread. When we say no to sin when we are tempted, are renouncing Satan and persevering in resisting evil. When we talk to others about God’s word and live out the words we speak, we proclaim the Good News of God’s Kingdom by word and example. When we help people in sorrow, need, sickness or any other distress, without regard to their immutable characteristics, and regardless of their station in life, we seek and serve Christ in all persons. When we treat others fairly and conduct ourselves amicably with other people, we actively strive for justice and peace. And here’s the tough one: respecting the dignity of every human being. When we are in the midst of a heated conflict with another person, that’s the farthest thing from our minds. When we hear politicians in the news deliver hateful messages that denigrate ethnic groups, religions, women, and sexual minorities, it’s very tempting for us to stoop to their level and refer to them in equally derogatory terms. What Jesus asks us to do, however, is to pray for them. Some of them need quite a few prayers.
Jesus at his Baptism was called as a prophet, anointed as a priest, and crowned as a king. God told us to listen to Jesus, like God intended us to listen to prophets of old. The Holy Spirit anointed him as a priest, to offer sacrifices on our behalf, which he actually did. And at His Baptism, God glorified Jesus, as one would glorify a king. Likewise, in our Baptism, we are heirs of Jesus in all three roles. Jesus wants us to be prophets in the tradition of the Old Testament, to call out evil, as Amos and Isaiah did. Amos spoke to an oppressed society and his concern for the poor. Isaiah condemned unjust statutes and oppressive decrees that deprived the poor of justice and preyed on widows and orphans. And believe it or not, all of us became priests at our baptism. Not ordained priests, as that comes later for some of us, but priests in the sense of those who live on the border of holy things to share our own special, individual experience of God with others and to offer sacrifices on their behalf. And finally, we are crowned as kings, not to dominate or bully other people, but entitled to respect for our dignity as human persons, sovereign over, and in control of, our own lives, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to resist all that rebels against God and to command our personal powers, talents and resources, whatever they may be, to make the environment in which we live a better place, whether that environment is our home, our workplaces, our church, or school.
The Baptism of Jesus was essential to who Jesus is. Our Baptism is essential to what we are. It made Him what He is, and it makes us what we are. As First Peter tells us, we as human persons are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and God’s holy people, in order that we might be called out of darkness into the marvelous light of God to proclaim God’s mighty acts. And, as Saint Paul tells us, we are, with agua, and the fire of the Holy Spirit, washed and sanctified, in the name of Jesus. AMEN.