Homily for the Baptism of the Lord, 2013
Repent! The end is near! I think we can all picture the old guy with the scraggly beard holding up the sign on the side of the road, especially this past year, 2012. How often Christianity is presented in threatening tones: Repent, of face eternal damnation! As if Christ came to shame us and make us feel guilty. As if it were only because of Jesus that there is such a thing as hell or sin or evil.
It is certainly true that in Christ the reality of sin and evil is revealed in all of its ugliness and brutality. When one holds up a light in a room, one sees everything clearly, the good and the bad alike. But as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, we are reminded that the message proclaimed by the Church to our world is incredibly and almost unbelievably positive.
The goodness of God’s will for us is made manifest in a particular way when Christ is baptized in the Jordan. In his baptism, Christ immerses himself into the small and rather dirty Jordan river. And he does so right along with thousands of other people, some of them very great and notorious sinners, who had come to be baptized by John. And he does not distinguish himself, he does not separate himself.
In being baptized, Christ intensifies his identification with all of us.
He enters the river of human weakness and division, he enters the river of hatred and rivalry, he enters the river of indifference and deceit, and he immerses his whole self into these waters of our fallen human nature. But as he rises out of the waters, something is new. The baptism of John was a baptism of repentance, a baptism that symbolized the desire of the sinner to repent and follow God’s will, it was not a manifestation of God’s will.
What we see in Christ is different. His was not a baptism of repentance, but the manifestation of a new era of salvation. Instead of baptism manifesting the sinner’s hope for mercy, in Christ baptism becomes the way that God adopts us into his life and shows us his favor.
It is critical that we who have been baptized in Christ realize that we have not received a baptism of repentance, the baptism of John. We use ashes to symbolize our repentance, not water. Instead, through water we now receive what John the Baptist called the baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire, the baptism of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Ours is a baptism of adoption, through which St. Paul tells us that we now call God Abba, Father. In practice, water is still poured over our heads, just as Christ was immersed into the waters of the Jordan. But in Christ, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Adoption has entered the into the waters. At the moment when water is poured over our heads, God the Father speaks to us the same words that he spoke to Christ, “You are my son, you are my daughter, this day I have begotten you.” In baptism, it is not we who attempt to make a claim on God’s mercy, but the Triune God who makes a claim on our lives. We are his.
Jesus later taught his disciples what this meant. We have been given the glory, he said, that the Father has given the Son. We are in Christ, and he is in us, we are his body. And the love that the Father has for the Son, the Love that is God’s life, is now given to us who have been immersed into him in baptism.
“Comfort, give comfort to my people,” Isaiah proclaims, “Here comes with power the Lord God.” He comes not to condemn but to save us by adopting us in accord with his plan from the beginning, allowing us to share in the fullness of his love.
Christians must seek to do good and avoid evil, we must repent and be faithful to the Gospel. But we do so not because we are motivated by fear or the desire to appease a God who we perceive to be just waiting on the sidelines to condemn us. Instead, our striving to do good and avoid evil, if it is genuine, arises from the grateful recognition of the gift of faith that we have received. Our desire to be holy is nothing less than the desire to be authentic, to live according to who we have been made in baptism, the beloved sons and daughters of God, called to live the fire of love through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The baptism of John manifested repentance, the desire for mercy and divine favor. The baptism of Christ reveals to us something profoundly new, that we would not have known on our own. That God desires for us to dwell in him and to participate in his never-ending love. So repentance yes, sure that is part of the life of the Christian. But more importantly, as we hear in the Psalm today: “O bless the Lord, my soul!” He has immersed himself in our fallen world and through Christ made us his adopted children, with whom he is well pleased.