The Baptism of the Lord [C]

The Baptism of the Lord [C]
Isaiah 42:1-4,6-7  +  Acts 10:34-38  +  Luke 3:15-16,21-22
January 13, 2013

               In the year of Our Lord 387, Saint Augustine was washed in the waters of Baptism, dying to death, and entering a new way of life.  Of all the saints of our Church’s history, Saint Augustine’s would probably make the best Hollywood screenplay:  drama was a constant part of his life.  Born in what today is the country of Algeria, Augustine was the child of a pagan father, who was well-off, but with a violent personality; his mother Monica was a devout Christian who instructed all her children in the practice of the faith.  However, infant baptism was not yet the norm in the Church:  it was often put off until the moment of death, so that a person could be sure of entering heaven.
               Despite his mother’s instruction in the Catholic faith, Augustine gradually strayed from following his mother’s words.  When he was sixteen he began living with a woman who two years later bore his son.  Augustine’s mother, of course, counseled him to marry the woman, but he continued to live with her out of wedlock for fifteen years.  Two years before Augustine and his child’s mother split up, they left Africa for Rome, and then Milan, so that Augustine could pursue his career as a public speaker and philosopher.  He made this move secretly, so his mother could not follow and continue to bother him.  She managed to, anyhow.
               While in Italy, his mistress left him and their son, returning to Africa.  This didn’t seem to bother Augustine, though:  he simply took to living with other women.  In the midst of all of this, Monica continued to pray for the conversion of her son, and at the age of thirty-two, Augustine had a profound spiritual experience which convinced him of the stupidity of his way of life, and the beauty of living according to the Way of Jesus’ life.  He formed a small community made up of a few of his friends, his mother, and his son.  Augustine was baptized at the Easter Vigil the following spring, at the age of thirty-three.
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               It was also at the age of thirty-three that Jesus of Nazareth died on the Cross, opening the gates to heaven for all who choose to enter through them, by Way of His Cross.  When Augustine was baptized, he died, too, because death is the meaning of the Sacrament of Baptism.  When the catechumens of our parish, along with all the catechumens of the Church throughout the world, are baptized next April at the Easter Vigil, they too will die, because death is the meaning of the Sacrament of Baptism.  Baptism means ending an old way of life, and beginning a new way of life.  For most catechumens, of course, this transition is not as dramatic as it was in the life of Augustine.  Nonetheless, for every catechumen, Baptism means accepting death as the Way of Life.
               Of course this sounds like nonsense to the world-at-large.  The world says that to live means to “just do it.”  To live, the world says, means that “I can.”  To live, the world says, means something different every few years, whenever one slogan no longer sells.  To live, the world says, means that whatever I feel like doing is what I should do, even if this changes constantly from day to day, and from person to person.
               This is not, however, what God the Father says.  His Word does not change each day, each year, or even each millennium.  In speaking from the midst of the clouds at Jesus’ Baptism, God the Father tells us that this Jesus is His Beloved Son:  this Jesus is the Word made flesh.  This epiphany of Jesus’ glory is not simply for Jesus’ own sake, how­ever.  The Father speaks of the Beloved Son and the Spirit descends upon the Beloved Son so that we, too, might accept the call to be His adopted sons and daughters, beloved because we walk in His way.
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               As we hear this scene in today’s gospel, we might first ask ourselves, “Why was Jesus baptized?”  He certainly didn’t need to have his sins washed away, as we do, because He was God and therefore sinless.  We might ask ourselves, “Why did the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus?”  He certainly didn’t need to be filled with the Holy Spirit, as we do, because He was God and therefore had shared that Holy Spirit with the Father from before time began.
               These questions might seem unanswerable, but they are simple enough in comparison to another question that suggests itself during this Christmas season:  “Why was Christ born to begin with?”  He certainly didn’t need to be born on earth so that he could one day die and be borne into heaven, as we do, because He had been living as God the Son  along with the Father and the Holy Spirit from all eternity in heaven.
               In fact, the answer to all these questions is the same:  Jesus did all these things for us.  Jesus did all these things so that we might learn from His example, and imitate Him.  But even more importantly, He did all these things so that we might understand, above all, that when we place our faith in the power of Christ’s death, we find new life.
Of course, when we are baptized, we do not immediately enter into heaven.  There is a long way—sometimes a very long way—that stretches between the Cross of Baptism and the Cross of earthly death.  Instead of Baptism being simply the gates to heaven, we should think of Baptism as the gates to the Church.  When we pass through the gates of Baptism, we become members of the Church, and accept the respons­i­bility of being a Christian, which in one phrase means accepting the call—the vocation—to holiness.  As baptized members of the Church, we accept Jesus’ call to travel the way of holiness, the Way of Life, which in reality is the way of death, or rather the way of dying to oneself.  This Way of the Cross stretches out along all the miles between those two crosses of Baptism and earthly death.
               Accepting the call to travel the way of death-to-oneself is what being a Christian means.  Every Christian is called to be holy, and everyone becomes holy by dying to oneself.  But just as every Christian is different in physical characteristics, different in talents, and different even in one’s sins, so also every Christian is different in the way that he or she dies to himself or herself.  The Christian life is the same for everyone, since for everyone the Christian life is dying to oneself.  The difference is in the fact that every self which dies is different.
               Every Christian finds true freedom is being a baptized person.  In being baptized, a person finds true freedom, finds the strength to do what he or she is being called by God to do.  In our old way of life we follow our own way, and we find that we constantly fall back into sin.  In our old way of life we find that we are limited by the confines of our own human imagination, by the confines of our own human hopes for the future, by the confines of our own human trust in our abilities.  We are limited by the confines of our own human memory, our own human intellect, and our own human will.  Our humanity becomes a prison.
               When a person is baptized, he or she is adopted by God, and accepts the call to be something more than merely human.  Each of us who is baptized is called to be a child of God.  Each of us who is baptized is called to sacrifice our limited imagination, our limited hopes, and our limited abilities.  Each of us who is baptized is called to accept the Sacrifice that Christ offers us in exchange:  His Body and Blood, His soul and divinity, so that we would truly live as children of God.
               Every person emerges from the waters of Baptism and lives his or her Christian life in a unique way.  Some Christians are called by God to the particular vocation of marriage; some Christians are called by God to the particular vocations of a religious order; some Christians are called by God to the particular vocation of the single life; some Christians are called by God to the particular vocation of Holy Orders.
               All of these particular vocations work together to form one Church, one body of Christians living together to form the one Body of Christ, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church we profess in the Creed.  We might even say that the Baptism of the Lord is a foreshadowing of Pentecost.  As the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ at His Baptism, so the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, the nucleus of the Church, at Pentecost.  As Jesus’ Baptism was the beginning of his public life and ministry, so Pentecost was the beginning of the Church’s life and ministry, and her history.
               At this moment in human history, as we approach the great jubilee of the year 2000, each one of us as an individual member of the one Body of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, is called to do all that is possible to prepare for the Jubilee, to help the entire world walk Christ’s Way of Life, in which we truly can do all things.


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The parish I serve

<b>The parish I serve</b>
St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Colwich, Kansas (Diocese of Wichita)