Saturday, January 10, 2015

Homily for Feast of Baptism of the Lord

Homily for the Feast of the
Baptism of the Lord
Mark 1: 7-11
Collect (alternate)
Jan. 11, 2015
Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y.

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John” (Mark 1: 9).

Window by Malate
St. Mark gives us the bare-bones version of Jesus’ baptism by John—the verse I just repeated, and 2 more about the appearance of the Holy Spirit and the pronouncement of the Father (1:10-11).

Was it Jesus alone who saw and heard these phenomena, or did John also, or any bystanders?  You’d think that something so remarkable, if witnessed, would cause a stir.  We have no evidence of that.

So, the way Mark tells the story, only Jesus witnesses these wondrous phenomena.  Some interpreters hold that from this whole experience—John’s preaching, his baptism, the descent of the Spirit upon him, and the Father’s affirmation—Jesus as man comes to understand who he is and what his mission is.

Be that as it may, Mark, Matthew, and Luke all agree that Jesus’ next step will be a spiritual retreat of 40 days, fasting and praying in the wilderness and being tempted by the devil.  (One of those passages is always our gospel reading on the 1st Sunday of Lent.)  Jesus will emerge from that retreat to begin his public ministry.  The experience of his baptism and his 40 days of communion with his Father are transformative for Jesus—not in his essence, for he was always the Son of God and always filled with the Spirit; but what happened at his baptism and in the desert transforms the course of his incarnated life.  From the life of a quiet and pious carpenter in Nazareth (we presume, without any authentic knowledge, that he followed Joseph’s trade), he takes up the life of a preacher, healer, bringer of God’s love and mercy, and becomes the redeemer of the human race.  The divinity hidden within him for 30 years will now “appear in our very flesh,” as our Collect notes—appear effectively.  Outwardly like us, he’s inwardly filled with the Spirit of God—this is now made manifest—and is able to give that Spirit to his fleshly brothers and sisters.  “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” John preaches (1:8).

Our prayer this evening in the Collect was “that we might be inwardly transformed through him.”  Christ shares our human nature, and in him our nature has been suffused with grace by the descent of the Spirit.  In Christ our nature is again—for the 1st time since Adam’s fall—pleasing to the Father.

We pray that we—individually, you and I, each of us here; and every believer—might be transformed thru our union with Christ, the God-man so Spirit-filled, so pleasing to our Father.  We pray for an inward transformation, for outwardly we already resemble Christ, “who shares our humanity in order that we might share in his divinity.”  If it sounds radical that we should share in Christ’s divinity, recall that this is a teaching of the Fathers of the Church, and it’s also a prayer at every Mass, whispered (usually, following the rubric) by the priest as he adds water to the cup of wine.  Christ in his human nature receives the Holy Spirit so that human nature might be entirely renewed and made whole.[1]

What happens when we are “inwardly transformed” and become like Christ?  What are the indications that our nature is being divinized, being suffused with the grace of the Holy Spirit?  We cast out of our lives the disfigurement of sin so that the Holy Spirit may reconfigure us into the likeness of Christ—and for that of course we need plenty of divine help:  the grace of the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, the graces of our particular vocations, and the power that comes from the Word of God that we listen to, read, and take into our hearts.  We become more concerned to hear the Father’s voice, to listen to what the Father asks of us, to attune our wills and desires and aspirations to God’s will, like Jesus.  The inward transformation of our hearts and souls gives birth to an outward transformation of our lives, so that we become servants of our brothers and sisters like Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45); who washed his apostles’ feet (John 13:1-17); who patiently taught and healed; who gave his life to ransom us from Satan’s power (cf. Mark 10:45).  Thru us, when we’ve been inwardly transformed, the Spirit testifies to God’s love for all his children:  “In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments” (1 John 5:2), particularly the commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us:  to forgive, to heal, to show mercy.

May the Holy Spirit, who descended on us in our sacramental Baptism and Confirmation and who remains close to us every day, truly transform us into God’s children in our thoughts, words, and deeds.

     [1] Cf. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John, LOH 1:604.

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