Baptism of the Lord

The image of water reminds me of a revival preacher who, after a sermon on “demon alcohol” thundered: “If I had all the beer and wine and whiskey in the world, I’d pour it into the river.”  After the preacher sat down, the song leader rose and announced “our next song is 'Shall we Gather at the River'.”

I don't know about you, but I'm noticing more and more people with tattoos. Colorful designs, flowers, crosses, etc.

In baptism, we are branded, so to speak, identified by God as belonging to a community of disciples: disciples of Jesus.

But baptism is not a tattoo: it's a transformative experience in which God lives in us and we live in God. That’s our indelible identity. God empowers us, by his grace and favor, to live godlike lives, as sons and daughters of God our Father and co-heirs to the promise of eternal life.

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River.

And in this celebratory event, our Catholic community invites all of us to renew our baptismal promises so that we can live ever more transparently as disciples of Jesus, trying to do, as best we can, the right thing.

The beginning of the new year is a perfect time to do this. We may have already reflected on all that happened in 2018, for example, what am I thankful for? Or perhaps, we might have sighed with relief: good riddance. In any case, what do I look forward to in 2019? What will I do differently? Let's look to the word of God for guidance. 

The word of God takes us back in our imaginations to the sixth century before Jesus, to the Hebrew exile in ancient Babylonia (known today as Iraq).The passage is a poem, a song, about the vocation or calling of a “servant” who will be a light to those who live in darkness, a doer of justice, a liberator, a faithful keeper of God’s covenant. The early Christians saw in this Hebrew “servant” Jesus, whose vocation was to proclaim a transcendent purpose for us: eternal life with God beyond this earthly life by living a god-like life here and now.

The word challenges us to ask whether we are “in deed” disciples of Jesus, trying to do the right thing so that the presence of God can shine forth in our daily lives.

In the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, which is about the beginnings of Christianity, the author describes Peter, fired up by the grace of God, proclaiming Jesus as God’s anointed One, the Messiah. And you and I should be fired up by the grace of God, witnessing to the Gospel by trying to live a life of virtue: a life self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, courage, friendship, honesty, loyalty, and faith in God.

In the Gospel according to Luke, John baptizes Jesus in the waters of the Jordan River. And afterwards, the power of God overwhelms Jesus and he, fired up, begins his public ministry, proclaiming a new purpose for us, symbolized in a dove that suggests new beginnings after the flood in the Noah biblical story.

Now John the Baptist is an interesting personality. He dressed simply, ate simply.

His vocation or calling was clearly to point to Jesus as the Messiah. As we reflect upon John’s vocation, we might ask whether, by virtue of who we are and what we do, we reflect Jesus Christ in our relationships with one another.

And what is John doing here? He is baptizing. He’s inviting people to turn their lives around, to live a God-centered, other-centered life.

Baptism is a rite of initiation into a world-wide community of disciples. In early Christianity, candidates were, more often than not, immersed in water. Water can symbolize life and death. It can be life-giving (when we’re dehydrated) or death-threatening (think hurricanes or floods). When the candidate stepped into the baptismal pool on one side and came up on the other side, he/she symbolized in that gesture a dying to a self-centered life and a rising to a God-centered life.

By the 11th century, baptism by immersion became the exception and baptism by the pouring of water over the head of the candidate became the common practice. We baptize children to emphasize that baptism is a gift from God,  and not something we choose to have.

But why be baptized? To understand baptism, we first have to understand who we are in relationship to God. The Book of Genesis captures this very graphically.
In the beginning, man and woman walked with God; they had friendship with God and friendship with one another. But in spite of knowing what God wanted, they lost that friendship. They fell from grace. Genesis describes very powerfully their fall. They hid from God; man blamed woman; earthly elements betrayed them.

Ever since, the human family has cried out for God’s friendship again.

So God became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. God, through Jesus by the power of the Spirit, re-establishes our friendship through the dying/rising of Jesus Christ.

Thus, baptism initiates us into a new community of fellowship, of grace. This new relationship with God makes very straight-forward demands upon us. The so-called Ten Commandments are really about freeing ourselves from attitudes and behaviors that undermine our relationship with God and one another.

The Ten Commandments say, very simply, that our God is all-mighty and all-present, a God of love; and our response to God’s love is gratitude.

This planet of ours, and the people on it, reflect the image of God. And so, everything on this planet – God’s people especially -- is worthy of reverence.

God deserves our time. That’s why we take time to get in touch with God. This same God challenges us to live virtuous lives: for example,
caring for aging parents;
cherishing life from beginning to end;
being faithful to our marriage promises;
respecting the rights of others;
speaking the truth;
not exploiting people or treating them as objects;
and being generous rather than greedy with what we have.
The Ten Commandments underscore virtues we should practice every day.

And so today, as we reflect upon the baptism of Jesus, I invite us to renew our own baptismal promises, to live as sons or daughters of God, to be a living gospel to others in this year of faith. Someone wrote that you and I are writing our own gospel, a chapter each day, by the deeds we do, by the words we say. Pray for the grace to write your living gospel so that others recognize in us the presence of God.

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