Sunday, Jan. 13, is the Baptism of the Lord. Mass Readings: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 or Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 29: 1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10 or Psalm 104: 1B-2, 3-4, 24-25, 27-28, 29-30; Acts 10:34-38 or Timothy 2:11-14, 3:4-7; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22.
In this week’s Gospel for the Baptism of the Lord, as the curtains are pulled back, we see Jesus enter, encountering people “filled with expectation.” John the Baptist’s preaching has them on high alert, and they are aware that someone great is coming and that something monumental is about to happen. If we can appreciate the significance of Jesus’ baptism, we will understand that those awaiting his coming would not have been disappointed.
Jesus, without sin himself, had no need of John’s baptism of repentance. He enters the waters to show us that while we are powerless to go to God, God comes to us, implicating himself totally in our humanity, meeting us in our sinfulness, and redeeming not only mankind but all of creation. “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The renewal of creation is accomplished by the same Word who made it in the beginning.
Water itself in this scene is very important. The Jews understood well its symbolism and its massive power. In critical moments in salvation history, water was a tremendous force that God alone had control over and from which he drew forth life: “The Lord is enthroned above the flood,” the psalm recalls. In the creation account, the Spirit of God hovers over the waters as life appears and the earth is formed.
The waters of Noah’s flood serve to destroy what is corrupt and sinful, until God “remembers” Noah and sends upon the waters a wind (literally, in Hebrew, ruah elohim, the same description used for “Spirit” in the creation story); and once again, dry land appears. As the Israelites fleeing Egypt approach the Red Sea, the waters part to allow them to cross over, leaving behind death and slavery.
For the Israelites, large bodies of water always had a deeper meaning than simply washing or cleansing. It also suggested death. By entering the waters of the Jordan, Jesus enters into the waters of death to bring new life.
Therefore, our baptism is not only the remission of sin and the grace of adoption, but in a very real way, it is the death of the sinful self and our rebirth in Christ. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in the fourth century, spoke to those who had just been baptized: “In the same instant you died and rose again; the saving water was both your tomb and your mother.”
“Your birth,” he said, “was simultaneous with your death.” We drown our sinful self and emerge sinless, one with Christ in his resurrection. Paul writes to Timothy, “He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
As Jesus himself emerges from the Jordan, we have a new epiphany: The mystery of the Holy Trinity is made manifest. The heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends, and the Father speaks: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Salvation, we discover, is divine sonship and daughtership. It is our ability, through God’s mercy, to enter into communion with a God who totally submerges himself into our own broken lives, into the depths of our sin and hopelessness; and grasping us by the hand (see Isaiah 42:6), he pulls us out of our ocean of pain to experience the forgiveness of a loving Father so that we “become heirs in hope of eternal life.” What a staggering truth, a truth which then — and now — exceeds all expectation.
SpiritualDirection.com and coordinates adult faith formation at her parish in Phoenix, where she lives with her family.