Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Baptism of the Lord

Chances are that for most of us Christmas is already a distant memory. We have already taken down the lights from our windows and put away the Christmas tree and its ornaments. We have packed up the manger scene and stored it away for another year. Our children have returned to school and are already tired of playing with the toys they received. Christmas has passed, and we are dealing with the challenges and opportunities a new year brings.

As a Church, however, the birth of our Savior is still fresh on our minds. We continue to celebrate the marvel of God made man and to unpack its meaning for our lives. On the Sunday after Christmas, we celebrated the feast of the Holy Family commemorating the love with which Mary and Joseph cared for Jesus, and we committed ourselves to following their example in our own families. On New Year's Day, seven days after Christmas, we honored Mary under her title as "Mother of God", celebrating God's choice of her as the immaculate mother of our Savior and recognizing that, through faith, she is our mother as well. Last Sunday, we celebrated the Epiphany of the Lord when a star led the Magi from the east to the child Jesus. We learned that Jesus was born not only to be the King of the Jews, but that all people were to be saved through him.

Today we end our celebration of Christmas by remembering the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. It marks the end of his hidden years as a carpenter in Nazareth and the beginning of his ministry preaching the good news, healing the sick and gathering around himself disciples and apostles who would be the foundation of the Church. This feast day helps unfold for us more of the mystery of who Jesus is and what his mission was. As Luke tells us, when Jesus was baptized heaven opened up, the Holy Spirit came down upon Him and a voice booming from above declared that he is the Son of God, and that the Father is pleased with him. We can only imagine what the scene was like for those fortunate enough to have witnessed it. God was pointing out to all those who would hear that the Messiah they had been waiting for was now in their midst and that the Holy Spirit was with him to lead all those who would follow him into freedom.

Though the scene is majestic, there is another dimension to this baptism story. Anyone who would have been listening carefully to God's voice from heaven would have heard in his words an echo of the ancient prophecies of Isaiah, in particular, several oracles called the "Servant Songs." One of these prophecies serves as our first reading today. Through the prophet Isaiah God gives a description of the Messiah as one with whom he is pleased and as the one upon whom he has placed his Spirit. This matches exactly the words which are spoken from heaven at Jesus' baptism. And so, God is pointing out to the people that Jesus is the servant whom Isaiah had foretold many centuries earlier. In another of the servant songs, however, Isaiah prophecies that it would be through his suffering that this servant would bring about the salvation promised by God. We read these prophecies every year during Holy Week. The Messiah is described as a suffering servant who takes on the sins of the people, who is rejected and persecuted. As Isaiah puts it, "By his stripes, we are healed."

Through these words, a little bit more of the mystery of Jesus is revealed. Despite the power of the Holy Spirit which rests upon him, despite the good works he performed among the people and despite the beauty of his message of forgiveness and love, this Savior was destined to be rejected and to suffer a horrible death for our sakes.

But Jesus' death is not the end of the story. We gather here two thousand years later because that same Spirit which alighted on Jesus at his baptism raised him from the dead. That same Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and Mary empowering them to pick up where Jesus left off and spread the good news throughout all the nations of the earth. We ourselves are the recipients of the promise made by John the Baptist when he said One was coming who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Each of us has received that baptism of fire through our own baptism and again in our confirmation. The same Holy Spirit who came down upon Jesus was given to us. We were granted the forgiveness of our sins and the promise that the One who raised the body of Jesus would raise us up to everlasting life. Finally, the same Spirit who ignited a fire in the apostles empowering them to spread the good news of Jesus even in the face of persecution and death has been given to us so that we can live and spread his word not with our puny efforts but with the very power of God. All this is given to us who have believed in the name of Jesus and have been baptized in his Spirit. It is a Spirit that leads us out of fear and slavery to sin into freedom.

And so today we wrap up our celebration of Jesus' birth for another year. However, we commit ourselves once again to keeping the spirit of Christmas alive all year long. We do not do that, however, by keeping our Christmas tree up or singing carols. We do that by living our baptism in the power of the Spirit we have received. We do that by calling others to recognize and accept the gift of salvation offered them in the person of Jesus. We do that by striving to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah to bring freedom to captives , sight to the blind and food to the hungry. We do that by every day giving our lives over to Jesus, our Messiah, and by asking him to work wonders in our lives and in our world.

(image by Fr Andrew Johnson, Good Shepherd Parish, Fall River, Ma)

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