Baptism Of The Lord, Year C
Let us reclaim our baptismal grace. Let us turn back to God.
We are in the second Sunday after Christmas. We have just celebrated Christmas. For many of us, it was a very busy time of the year. There were family gatherings to arrange, gifts to wrap, house to clean, trips to plan, etc. etc. For most of us, now is the time when we can finally take a rest from the hustles and bustles. Hence, this weekend presents an opportune time for us to reflect on our faith and the Good News that the birth of Jesus brings. Appropriately, the Church invites us to reflect on our baptism.
For those of us who are cradle Christians, our baptism was an event we were too young to remember. There was no conscious choice on our part, let alone a spiritual reflection of the decision. Often, the lack of spiritual reflection is the case even for the parents of the baptised child. For many parents, baptism or christening is a family tradition. Like Christmas, we spend a lot of time planning the logistics but little time reflecting on its spiritual significance. In fact, for many non-practicing Christian parents, baby baptism or christening is one of the very few occasions in their lives they step into a church! For those of us who were baptised as adults, our baptism tends to take on more spiritual significance. There is often a spiritual preparation process prior to the baptism. For example, in the Catholic Church, the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) is a year-long process to help new members prepare for their baptism.
So then, what is the spiritual significance of my baptism? Let us start by reflecting on the First Reading of this week. After the Babylonian conquest of the Israelite kingdom of Judah in 605BC, many Israelites were taken from their homeland and exiled to Babylon. The First Reading was written in the context of that exile. In that time, many second-generation Israelites got comfortable with their lives in Babylon and lost the zeal to return to their homeland. The passage reignites the people’s hearts by explaining how the Lord will smoothen their path back, where valleys would be filled in, hills laid low, and cliffs became plains. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” (verse 3-4) For many of us, our spiritual states are like the Israelites. Whether we are regular or occasional church-goers, many of us are distanced from our spiritual homeland. I am in the wilderness, trapped under the weight of my sins, unable to find my way back. Contemplate this for a moment: let me search my heart and reveal the sins that I have been struggling with. Some of us will find it difficult to identify our sins. This is not because I am morally impeccable. Rather, sometimes, having been immersed in these sins for so long, like the Israelites in Babylon, I become too comfortable and complacent. I am numb to my sins. To help us reflect, let us turn to the Second Reading.
If the Second Reading sounds familiar, it is because it was the Second Reading used for the Christmas midnight mass. It is as appropriate a reflection for Christmas as it is for baptism. In the passage, St Paul said to his friend Titus, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions” (verse 2:11-12). My brothers and sisters, let us ask ourselves, what “impiety and worldly passions” am I enslaved to? Do I carry latent anger from my past? Am I lustful? Is my pride hurting my relationships with others? Does greed motivate my life and my quests? Am I envious of others – of their intelligence, their possessions, their fame and their friends? Do I secretly rejoice if misfortune befalls upon them? Last but not least, am I so used to these sinful acts that I no longer think there is anything wrong with them? These verses in Tt 2:11-12 are particularly worth pondering indeed. The Jerusalem Bible text of these same verses reads, “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race and taught us that what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions.” Indeed, my brothers and sisters, we are to give up “everything that does not lead to God” and “all our worldly ambitions”.
This brings us back to the question: why do I baptise? Firstly, my baptism cleanses me of all my sins. Yet, it has to be asked: has my baptism healed me of my sins? Or are the lures of sin so strong, my conscience so numb, that I am constantly drawn back into sins? The coming of Jesus at Christmas is a wake-up call to me from my immersion in sins. It is time that I start embarking on the journey back to God. My sins are the reasons Jesus was born to me. God loves me so much that He took on human flesh; with all its pains and limitations. The secondl reason for my baptism is that baptism claims me as a child of God. But do I live my life as a child of God, with dignity and joy? I am a child of the Light. Yet, do I live my life as a child of darkness instead, with the shame and sadness brought on by my sins?
The Gospel this week tells the story of the Baptism of our Lord. It was a dramatic moment, “when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (verse 21-22) If we examine the purposes of baptism, it would seem that Jesus need not be baptised. The first purpose of Baptism is to be cleansed of sins – Jesus did not need that as He is sinless. Secondly, baptism makes us the adopted children of God – Jesus did not need that either as He is God. So, why did Jesus approach John the Baptist for baptism? He did so in recognition of his messianic mission. To minister to us sinners, He would first be identified with us. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) This is the mercy and love of God for me, that in order for me to recognise my sins, to save me from my immersion in sins, Jesus took upon my sins upon Himself, an act that would lead to Him paying the ultimate price on Good Friday. As St Paul wrote, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Ph 2:6-8)
My brothers and sisters, led by Jesus, let us return to God from the wilderness. As Isaiah urges us in the First Reading, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (verse 11) But this takes effort. Jesus cannot lead me unless I know Him. And there is no magical wand to make that happen. I need to devote time, praying to Him, reading His words, encountering Him. There is no shortcut. Attending a good talk or a retreat can help and that is only a start. It is no substitute for ongoing efforts to build a relationship with Jesus. It is like any human relationship. Having a really good one-off conversation does not grow our relationship with a person. We need to put constant effort into communicating, sharing our stories, sharing our hearts. And this is what Jesus wants from us as well. With His cross and His words, Jesus has made the initial approach. How do I respond? My dear friends, it is time to live up to our baptismal grace, as St Paul declared in the Second Reading, “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” (verse 3:4-5) And just as God spoke to Jesus in the Gospel, we will hear Him say, “you are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased”.