Homily for the Baptism of the Lord

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Sometimes one hears useful things in homilies. I remember one for this feast pointing out the many different forms water can take, how good it is at changing while always being water. It can be hot or cold, still or running, still or sparkling. It can exist as ice or snow or steam. Similarly, the grace of our baptism gives us a capacity to adapt, to stay faithful in the midst of change. Providentially, I heard this sermon not long before a great change came into my own life. Perhaps a change awaits some of us here this coming year. But, should a change in circumstances come our way, the grace of our baptism will help us adapt, help us remain Christian, keep close to Christ. That’s encouraging.

What happens today – this feast of the Lord’s Baptism?

It is the last day of the Christmas season. From tomorrow we revert to green. Today, though, seems more of a beginning than an end.

1. It is the beginning of Jesus’ public life. ‘He came from Galilee’, began today’s Gospel. He came from Nazareth, aged about thirty years, St Luke says. He left his mother, his family, his village. He left his trade. He left his relative anonymity. It was a great change. In the wake of John the Baptist, active in the south, our Lord came on stage. He began to ‘be about his Father’s business’. He began to ‘do all that righteousness demanded’ of him. He began his life’s work, as it were, as the Servant of the Lord.

2. And for that, as the 2nd reading says, ‘God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power’. ‘He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him’. Jesus had already been conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. He owed his human existence to what the Holy Spirit did in Mary. But existence is for action, and today that action, that mission, begins. And with it comes a new ‘upholding’, a further anointing by the Holy Spirit. From now on, Jesus begins to act as the Anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. He’s going now to open the eyes of the blind and free captives from prison, to ‘go about doing good and curing all who had fallen into the power of the devil’. And to do all this, to undo the effects of the spirit of evil, Jesus is anointed with the Spirit of God.

3. And he begins by receiving baptism at the hand of John. John is surprised. It is surprising! ‘It is I who need baptism from you, and yet you come to me!’ But Jesus insists. Why? Because, at the beginning of his public life, Christ is anticipating its end. He stands in the queue with the sinners. He identifies himself with them. And when his turn comes, he steps into the river and goes under the water. It is a symbol of his death. If we go under water and stay there, we drown, we die. So it was for Christ, by his own choice, on the Cross – hence, on another occasion, he called his passion his baptism. But then ‘he came up from the water’. It’s the symbol of his resurrection on the third day. And what happens then? The heavens open, the Spirit of God comes down and the voice of the Father resounds on the water: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.’ These all point to the great realities released around the risen Christ. This scene by the Jordan is an icon of salvation. God is revealed: the Son in the river, the Spirit in the dove, the Father in the voice. Jesus is God’s only-begotten Son, who will die and rise to bring us back into the Father’s favour. So the Spirit of the Father rests on him, is given him to give to us. And above him, the heavens are opened: communication is restored, relationship renewed. And we can now pray, ‘Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.’

4. All of this comes to each of us in our baptism. Today Christ ‘sanctifies the waters’. He makes water, already the origin of life, the beginning of the life of grace. He makes it a sacramental medium, capable of conveying the Holy Spirit. He ‘begins’ today, and gives us a new beginning, the first of the seven sacraments, the sacrament of our rebirth, where we die and rise with him. Thanks to the grace of this sacrament, we are now freed from the power of the Evil One. We can now ‘fulfil all righteousness’, live by the Father’s will. The spirit rests on us and anoints us for the doing of good. And over each of us resounds the Father’s voice, ‘You are my beloved son / daughter; my favour rests on you.’

Today, Christ ‘sanctifies the waters’. Water is a runny, liquid, changeable thing. Wonderful, but capable of overwhelming us, washing us away, drowning us. So like life! And the River Jordan runs into the Dead Sea, just as our lives flow towards death. But Christ has entered the waters: the body of God has touched them. And by the grace of our baptism, everything that’s simply passing in our life, that can overwhelm us, has been overcome by Christ. We have a spring of living water within us, welling up to everlasting life. We have a resource, a hidden power, thanks to which nothing need wash us away, but everything only serve to cleanse us and carry us into the ocean of God. Today we’re reminded of the great hidden power that came into our lives with baptism.

I once met a monk who did a great work in a very hot and harsh country in Africa. He taught the people to build dams. He built some 150 in his time. And thanks to those dams, water could be kept, not lost. And round the lakes that formed, crops could be grown. Green things, good things, nourishing things. Tomorrow, ‘green time’ returns’. Let’s welcome the water of grace into lives, let’s not waste it, let’s grow beautiful, nourishing things with it: lives full of faith, hope and love!