Homily for the Solemnity of the Baptism of Our Lord, Year A, 2014
I have a priest friend who is currently in the Holy Land with a group of pilgrims and has been posting pictures of his trip. One of the recent pictures was of him at the traditional place along the Jordan River where Christ was baptized by John.
My friend was not wearing swimming trunks. That is a dirty little river. And it has been that way for thousands of years. You might remember the story of Namaan the leper – how he came to Elisha to be cleansed and how when Elisha told him to go and wash in the Jordan seven times he was insulted? It’s the same today. It is not a place to find clean water.
So what drew my friend and his fellow pilgrims to the Jordan River was clearly not that it is a majestic or beautiful river, a natural wonder. Nor, however, were they visiting the Jordan with a mere historical interest, the way that they would visit a museum or an archeological site. Did they visit because it is a magical place where they could receive miracles or special powers? No. That would be a kind of superstition, and not in keeping with our faith. Some might say that in going they were keeping Jesus alive in their hearts by remembering him, or telling the story so that they could be inspired by God’s goodness and power. But what a washed out understanding of what a Christian experiences when he or she encounters the place where Christ was baptized!
No, Christians go to the Jordan still today because it represents something precious for every one of us who has been baptized.
When we were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul has taught us that we died to ourselves and we rose to new life in Christ. We were made members of his body. We became the adopted sons and daughters of God. And so what happened in the Jordan to Jesus when he went to be Baptized by John is not something that we look upon from the outside – as mere onlookers. When we were baptized, when Christ made us his brothers and sisters by adoption, everything that happened to him, all the words of the Father that were addressed to him also were addressed to us.
When the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ in the waters of the Jordan, he descended upon us to offer us his gifts. And likewise, the voice of the Father speaks to us, addresses us with the same words that he addressed to Jesus when he came out of those waters: “This is my beloved son, this is my beloved daughter, with whom I am well pleased.”
In recalling the baptism of Christ, we recall that by his grace, through his sacrifice on the cross, we too are heirs with him to heaven, that we are also those who find favor with God. This is one of the great themes of Christmas. Remember the songs of the angels on Christmas night? “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Because we have died with Christ and risen with him, we share in the same favor, the same peace, the same love that he has with the Father in the Holy Spirit. When we are baptized and when we live in the grace of our baptism, the life of our baptism, we live nothing other than the life of Christ. Christ lives in us, and we live in him. And so God loves us and favors us the same way that he loves and favors his son, the same way that the loves and favors his very self. In other words, we are drawn up into God, who is love.
So today is personal for each of us. And even though we cannot go to the Jordan river today, each of us should think of ourselves united with Christ in the Jordan, in that place. It may seem audacious, and it is. In fact it is fool-hardy, as St. Paul said – to be alive in Christ, to have God as our Father. To think of ourselves, raised up by God’s mercy out of the dirty water of our sinfulness and weakness united to Christ, members of his body. To look up – to see the Spirit come to rest upon us with his gifts. To hear the voice that comes out of the clouds and speaks to us: “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter, with whom I am pleased.”
Not mere history lessons, or magic moment, or happy thoughts. This is what we are made for: the peace and joy that comes from being pleasing to God, from giving glory to God, from being favored by him. And this is the gift we are given in baptism - that we are given when we live in union with Christ. Through him, with him, and in him, we receive the love and life and peace and joy that he receives and lives with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Christ enters into the waters of our lives and the heavens break open above us, bathing us in the splendor of God’s never-failing love.
Remember Christ’s final instructions to his disciples in St. John’s Gospel: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.”
May each of us today, then, recommit ourselves to living our baptism, to living in Christ, to keeping his commandments so that we too can share with him in the Father’s favor and give glory to his name.