Baptism of our Lord
by Fr. Jack McArdle
GOSPEL : MATTHEW 3:13-17.
Today marks the beginning of the mission of Jesus. On a human level it may seem strange that he had not done anything of great significance over the previous thirty years. I will share some thoughts on that point later on in this reflection. This day was D-day for him. It is very clearly implied that he had come to the Jordan in obedience to a word from the Father. His explanation to John is very inadequate, but John was enough of a prophet to obey without always understanding. The action of John, and the purpose of Jesus coming there was clearly confirmed by both the Father and the Spirit.
I have had the privilege of leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land on several occasions. One of the highlights of the trip was the ceremony of total immersion in the river Jordan, when each person renewed the promises of Baptism. It was a very moving time, and it was easy to imagine the Spirit descending, and the Father confirming each of us as his son or daughter. Many of those who travelled with us over the years still speak of that moment with great emotion, and with special remembrance.
In Matthew's account, today's gospel is prefaced by John the Baptist proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, and it is followed by Jesus encountering Satan in the desert. There is a definite pattern to all of this. The Spirit has shown John who Jesus was, and, once the Spirit had come upon Jesus, Satan is waiting his chance to test that Spirit. One of the greatest gifts we receive from what Jesus achieved is that, with the Spirit within, we can face up to any evil spirit we meet on the road of life. John the evangelist writes in one of his letters "Little children, there is a power within you that is greater than any evil power you may meet on the road of life."
John the Baptist had that wonderful gift of humility. He knew his place before his God. When some people asked him if he were the Messiah, he very emphatically denied any such claim. When Jesus came to him to be baptised, he was shocked, and he had no doubt that it was Jesus who should be baptising him. However, without understanding, once Jesus said that this was how he wanted things to be, John had the necessary humility to obey, and to bow to a higher authority. Original sin continues to show itself in endless forms, each of which is but another attempt to play God, to do things my way. John the Baptist was an extraordinary humble man. No wonder Jesus said, at a later date, "There has not been born of woman a greater prophet than John the Baptist."
The baptism of Jesus is an extraordinary moment in our story of salvation. Not only did Jesus join us in our sinfulness, but the Father and the Spirit are seen and heard to be there with him. The language of the gospel may appear so simple, when we are told that "the heavens were opened", but considering the banishment incurred through original sin, it is indeed a powerful statement. Later on, when Jesus will have completed his journey on Calvary, we are told that "the veil of the Temple was rent in two". For the first time, we were free to enter into the Holy of Holies. Today's gospel is the beginning of a journey, which, through our own Baptism, each of us is asked to travel.
The Church calendar is marked with very special and specific holy days, such as Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost. It is only when I begin to reflect on what really happened, and I begin to get into the heart of the matter, do I begin to see the importance of today, when we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. It is a truly significant feast-day, and a cause for celebration. It is very evident that our own Baptism marks the beginning of our own personal Christian journey. In a way it marks our common birthday.
I said earlier that there is an obvious pattern in the unfolding of the journey of Jesus. He told us that, if we follow him, we will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. There is nothing automatic about being a Christian. It involves personal decisions, decisions that need to be constantly renewed. When a baby is born, that fact is registered in the records of the state, and a certificate is available to show the date and the place of birth, together with the name of one or both parents. If the baby is put up for adoption, the natural mother is allowed several months to retain the option of changing her mind about her decision. If her decision is unchanged, she signs the adoption papers, and the baby becomes a member of a new family, with different parents, and a different surname. The adopting parents go through a very thorough scrutiny to ensure their suitability, before the baby is entrusted to their care. Baptism is our ceremony of adoption. It doesn't make us children of God, because that is already a fact through our creation. Just as the natural mother normally does not abandon her baby, but ensures it is given security and a sense of belonging, so we are registered as members of the Christian community, and are given our place within the Body of Christ, which we call Church. As I said, the natural mother is given plenty of time before she finally decides that this is what she wants to do. In our case, however, we are the ones who are given the time, and we are the ones who must decide for ourselves if we really do want to belong to this family, which we call Christian, or followers of Christ. Sooner or later, it is up to me to sign my own certificate......
It is very important that each of us should have a sense of purpose and pattern to our Christian living. When I set out on a journey it is necessary to have a definite idea of where I intend going, and the destination at the end of the journey. Signposts point the way; they do not compel me to travel that way. Have you ever come across a signpost that has been deliberately turned in the wrong direction by someone with a perverted sense of humour? As a Christian, I have very clear and definite signposts, and I always have the option of following them or not. Sometimes, because of road-works, I encounter a detour. When I follow the detour, my whole attention is given to every sign, until I get back on the road on which I wish to travel. In following my Christian vocation it is vital that I maintain a constant reflection on where I am going, why I am going in that direction, and that I have a definite pattern to my journey.
Many of us carry some form of personal identification, membership cards, or work-place name tags. Get a copy of your Baptism certificate, which can easily be obtained from the church in which you were baptised. Put it in your wallet or in your handbag, and carry it on your person. Let it be a constant reminder, and let it evoke a whole new YES every time you see it.
You can renew your baptismal vows any day you wish. This could easily be part of your prayer-life, from time to time. The words or formula don't matter. Some simple statement like the following would be quite sufficient : Lord Jesus, Saviour, I want to belong to you, to be part of the family of God, and to live according to the rules of your Kingdom. I renew the commitment of my baptism, and I ask for the grace to live out my Christian life.
A friend of mine vouches for the truth of the following incident. He was travelling down the country one day. His journey brought him along some by-roads, where the signposts were few and far between. After a while, he was unsure if he was on the right road, so he decided to ask the first person he saw. Eventually he came across a farmer driving his cows home for milking. He stopped the car, and asked him if he was on the right road to Somewhere, just to give the place a name. The farmer told him that he certainly was on the right road. My friend expressed his thanks, and was about to move forward when the farmer added, in a very nonchalant way "You're on the right road, but you're going in the wrong direction!"
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And That's The Gospel Truth copyright © Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.