Saturday, January 12, 2013

Homily for Baptism of the Lord

Homily for the Feast of the
Baptism of the Lord
Jan. 13, 2013
Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.

“The Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3: 22).

Luke’s description of Jesus’ baptism is sparse in the extreme (like Mark’s).  Luke tells us a little more about what followed—about as much as Mark and Matthew do.

In some manner, the Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus.  In the telling of all the Synoptics, it was visible, “like a dove”; Luke adds, “in bodily form.”  But visible to whom?  To Jesus, presumably; also to John? to the bystanders who also had been baptized?  That’s less clear.  Yet in the Church’s tradition, this feast of the Lord’s baptism is a continuation of his manifestation, his epiphany.  Last week he was made known to the nations, today to Israel.

What is the revelation made known to Jesus and, ultimately, to us?

1st, Jesus is consecrated.  It’s true that Luke has already revealed that in the narrative about Jesus’ conception, when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary.  Given that, this descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus is a kind of confirmation of his relationship with his Father and of his submission to whatever his Father wants—that submission having been symbolized by his baptism and by Jesus’ recourse to prayer (3:21).  The coming of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus is an anointing, as Luke says twice in Acts as he records samples of the preaching of the apostles (4:27; 10:38)—an anointing not with oil but with what sacramental oil symbolizes, whether in the OT anointing of kings and priests or in the NT rites of Baptism, Confirmation, and Orders.

2d, Jesus is the Father’s “beloved Son” and the Father is “well pleased” with him.  Again, this confirms what we were told thru Gabriel’s words to Mary, this Jesus is the “Son of the Most High” (1:32).  Now is added how pleasing this Son is to his Father—thru his rejection of sin, as indicated by his baptism, and by his prayerful dialog with the Father.

Luke is also telling us something more.  The words of the “voice from heaven,” the Father’s words, echo a passage from Isaiah: “Here is my servant…with whom I am pleased” (42:1).  This Son is identified with the Servant of the Lord of whom Isaiah prophesies.  We’ve already seen Jesus as a servant of the Lord:  “Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house” (or “about my Father’s affairs”)? (Luke 2:49), and we’ll see him as servant as he actually goes about doing what the Father desires in his ministry and in his passion—and continuing his prayerful relationship with his Father, a theme to which Luke returns some 7 times.[1]

In the sequel to Jesus’ baptism, he’ll begin to act on the Father’s will, to live out what his baptism represents.  The 1st thing Luke will tell us of Jesus’ post-baptismal activity is:  “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for 40 days, to be tempted by the devil” (4:1-2).

In the Spirit Jesus does 2 things.  1st, he deepens his communion with his Father.  Luke doesn’t say that, but it’s implied by his 40-day sojourn in the desert, like Moses’ 40 days on Mt. Sinai and Elijah’s 40-day hike “to the mountain of God” (1 Kings 19:8).  2d, he does battle with the Evil One, actually rejecting sin that he’d symbolically renounced in his baptism.

After his 40 days and spiritual combat in the desert, Luke tells us, “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit….  He taught in their synagogs and was praised by all” (4:14-15).  And, specifically, he went to Nazareth and in his home synagog announced his mission, quoting from Isaiah (61:1-2):  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18).

Thus we see that the Spirit who came “in power” upon Jesus after his baptism leads him to a deeper communion with his Father, leads him to victory over sin, and leads him to a multifaceted mission of preaching and healing.

What else does Luke say to us?  He quotes John:  “One mightier than I is coming.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:16).  The baptism that we have received, you and I, isn’t John’s baptism but Jesus’.  We have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  That Holy Spirit, 1st, has made us too the beloved sons and daughters of the Father, well pleasing to him; and 2d, is supposed to set us on fire to do as Jesus did:  to establish a firm and fervent relationship with our Father, to empower us to resist sin and live for our Father, and to empower us for mission, for making God’s Spirit present to our neighbors—by announcing to them glad tidings at least in how we treat them, by being agents of healing for them (in our presence, our words, our actions).  St. Paul urges us “to live temperately, justly, and devoutly” (Tit 2: 12), as examples of what that means.  All of this—closeness to our Father, resistance to sin, being agents of God’s Spirit in the world—that’s how we can be, as our prayer this evening pleaded, “always well pleasing” to the “almighty, ever-living God” who made us his “children by adoption, reborn of water and the Holy Spirit.”

During his public ministry, according to Luke, Jesus will exclaim, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (12:49).  The earth will blaze, humanity will be set on fire, when we children of God in Jesus Christ act in the power of the Holy Spirit like Jesus—not with miracles but with prayer, with virtue, with goodness to all.

[1] See note to 3:21 in New American Bible.

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