Sunday, January 9, 2011

Homily for Feast of Baptism of the Lord

Homily for the Feast
of the Baptism of the Lord

Jan. 9, 2011
Matt 3: 13-17
Willow Towers, New Rochelle
“Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him” (Matt 3: 13).
The 1st thing we might notice in this evening’s gospel is that Jesus goes way out of his way to be baptized by John the Baptist. He “came from Galilee,” i.e. from his village of Nazareth, and walked about 40 miles to get to the place along the Jordan River where John was preaching and baptizing, according to St. John’s Gospel (3:23), or some 90 miles to a different place near Jericho marked by Christian tradition. As our gospel a few weeks ago, on Dec. 5, we heard the passage in Matthew describing John’s preaching and baptismal ministry (3:1-12); the passage immediately precedes tonite’s gospel.
The 2d thing we might notice is John’s hesitance to baptize Jesus. Matthew may be dressing up the scene a bit to reflect what we as Christians know: that Jesus was without sin and certainly didn’t need to repent—that was the topic of John’s preaching and what his baptism symbolized. (Note that John’s baptism wasn’t sacramental like Christian Baptism; it was only symbolic.)
Jesus responds: “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). That’s a puzzling response. Jesus isn’t going to be made righteous—restored to God’s good graces—by being baptized. As John’s objection suggests, Jesus has no such need (3:14): he is the Mighty One whose coming John preached, who will baptize the repentant “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:11), as we heard on Dec. 5.
We could say that by submitting to this symbolic baptism Jesus is indicating his total submission to his Father’s plan, his Father’s will, for his life. Our submission to God’s will is the measure of our righteousness or our good standing with God. Jesus’ obedience—even unto death on a cross, as St. Paul says (Phil 2:8)—carries us, our human nature, along with him to eternal life; it redeems us from death.
We can also say, as the Fathers of the Church did, that Jesus’ baptism does the opposite of what John’s baptism symbolized and what Christian Baptism actually does. In Christians, Baptism effects a spiritual cleansing of the person baptized. That is, Baptism makes us righteous, or just, or holy, before God. In the case of Jesus at the Jordan, however, it’s the water that’s made clean, the water that becomes holy, thru its contact with Jesus Christ. It’s Christ who makes the water into a sacramental instrument for our salvation.

For example, St. Maximus, bishop of Turin at the beginning of the 5th century, says in a sermon: “Why would a holy man desire baptism? Listen to the answer: Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water. For when the Savior is washed, all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. Christ is the first to be baptized, then, so that Christians will follow him with confidence.”[1]

Thus Jesus “fulfills all righteousness” by investing the water with his own holiness as the Son of God, in order that baptismal water may sanctify us who follow him into the water of the sacrament.

How is that possible? Because the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus (3:16), upon his humanity, which means that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, represented the whole human race, and we are all filled with the Holy Spirit by God’s gift thru our association with him. “A voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (3:17). Similarly, the Father acknowledges all who receive the gift of the Spirit thru this beloved Son, Jesus, as his adopted sons and daughters—which is what happens to us in Baptism and is reinforced or renewed in all our sacramental encounters with our Savior Jesus Christ.

[1] Sermon 100; LOH 1:612-613, emended.

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