Baptism of the Lord
Jan. 10, 2016
Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22
Titus 2: 11-14, 3:4-7
St. Joseph Church, New Rochelle
St. Vincent Hospital, Harrison
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3: 16).
The feast we celebrate today is a dividing line. It marks the end of the Church’s Christmas season—believe it or not, Christmas began, not ended, on Dec. 25! Tomorrow we enter the season called Ordinary Time and resume the wearing of green vestments on Sundays, and weekdays that aren’t saints’ days, until Lent. As a further marker of this dividing line, today also functions as the unnumbered 1st Sunday of Ordinary Time, introducing the 1st Week of Ordinary Time tomorrow; next Sunday will be the 2d Sunday.
The feast of the Lord’s baptism also marks a division between the hidden life of Jesus and his public ministry. We consider his baptism to be part of Christmas, and thus part of his hidden life, because it’s one of the sequence of sacred events that only start to reveal God’s Son to the world. That sequence includes his birth, his Epiphany (the feast we celebrated last Sunday), and today. Today we see the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus “in bodily form like a dove,” and then we hear God the Father designate him as his beloved Son with whom he is very pleased. From now on Jesus will be fully revealed to the people of Galilee, Judea, and the world.
Jesus undergoes a kind of double baptism—a symbolic one of water, carried out by John the Baptist, which our gospel passage reports with a bare phrase but doesn’t describe: “After Jesus also had been baptized and waS praying” (3:21); and what we might call a sacramental baptism with explicit divine action: the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God the Father (3:22). Empowered by the Spirit, Jesus will go forth to do combat with Satan—with “the Dark Side,” if you wish—1st by undergoing temptation in the wilderness, and then by conquering all kinds of evil during his public ministry and in his passion and death.
What happened to Jesus foreshadows what happens to us, his disciples. St. Paul speaks of this in his Letter to Titus, our 2d reading: “God our Savior … saved us thru the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us” (3:4-6). The water of Baptism bathed us and cleansed us of sin—not just symbolically but really. The water is a symbol, yes, a sacramental sign. But the Holy Spirit of Jesus acting in the sacrament makes that watery sign effective: it carries out what it signifies, viz., cleansing. So John foretold when he preached, “The mightier one who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 3:16). John’s baptism didn’t take away sins, but the baptism administered to us in Jesus’ name does, because the Holy Spirit works thru those waters and the words that the Church proclaims in Jesus’ name as she baptizes. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the sacred water justifies people with Christ’s grace and makes them “heirs in hope of eternal life” (Tit 3:7).
John also mentioned fire. Luke’s Gospel is the only one with that detail of John’s preaching: the mighty one who “is coming … will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Luke reports the fulfillment of John’s prediction when the Holy Spirit came down upon the Virgin Mary and all Jesus’ disciples on Pentecost in the form of tongues of fire, resting on each individual in the room (Acts 2:3).
What does that fire mean? In the Acts of the Apostles, as soon as the Spirit has fired them up, the apostles, who until then had been hiding, trembling with fear of being arrested, go out and boldly start to preach the resurrection of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life.
To be filled with the Holy Spirit and fire, then, means for us to have the courage, the zeal, the love, and the joy to practice and proclaim our faith openly. If our culture and society have become coarse and semi-pagan, it’s because to a great degree we followers of Jesus have allowed that—by our timidity, by our fear of being known as Jesus’ people, and—most unfortunate—by our own sins and failures, our bad example. Why are so many people shocked, e.g., that the Little Sisters of the Poor refuse to provide abortion, sterilization, and contraception coverage for their employees and have to take the Obama Administration to court over that? Why is that surprising? Too many of us Catholics have just slipped into being like everyone else instead of rising to be who Jesus calls us to be, instead of being on fire to follow him, on fire to walk alongside him, on fire to be his companions.
Our fire is supposed to enable us to pray in our families, teach our children and grandchildren what it means to belong to Jesus, to speak truthfully, to work honestly, to welcome strangers, to care for the needy, to respect our bodies and the bodies of others, to treat everyone kindly and fairly, to be faithful to our spouses, to worship publicly every week (as you’re doing now), to let people know (quietly and gently, not obnoxiously) that we are Jesus’ people—and to find joy in doing all that. (Remember that Pope Francis called his 1st major papal message The Joy of the Gospel? He was speaking to all of us.) Speaking of Jesus, St. Paul writes to Titus, “The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age” (2:11-12). Jesus has given us his own Holy Spirit in Baptism and again at Confirmation, and the Spirit is available to us whenever we call upon him, so that we might act and speak like men and women who believe that Jesus saves us from our sins and calls us to “become heirs in hope of eternal life” (Tit 3:7).