Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Baptism of the Lord, Year A
January 8-9, 2005
Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Mt 3:13-17
1) Last Sunday, we celebrated the Lord’s epiphany as light to all nations, represented by the wise gentiles who traversed “field and fountain, moor and mountain” in order to worship him. Today we mark an even more important epiphany in the Lord’s life, one that occurred about 30 years after that first one in Bethlehem. At the end of decades of hidden life, Jesus’ full identity was manifested at the Jordan when the Holy Spirit descended upon him and God the Father spoke from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased!”
2) I mentioned last week that the Lord’s epiphany in Bethlehem led to the epiphany of what was really in the hearts of others — in Herod (hatred and hostility), in the chief priests and biblical scholars (indifference), in the wise men (hunger and adoring love), and in us, depending upon how we react to Christ in the present. In an analogous way, the manifestation of the Lord’s identity at the Jordan is also the manifestation of OUR identity and how we live up to it.
3) At the Jordan, Jesus received a baptism and another baptism — and more significant and efficacious one — was announced. The baptism he received from John was merely a sign of repentance “to fulfill all righteousness;” he, who came to the world to take away the sins of the world, foreshadowed in the waters of the Jordan what he would later accomplish in the bath of blood on Calvary. But at the Jordan, right before Jesus’ baptism, John announced that there was another baptism — one not just of water, but of “the Holy Spirit and fire” (Lk 3:16) — that Jesus himself would INSTITUTE. “I must be baptized by you,” the Baptist declared. This was the baptism that Jesus, in his valedictory address immediately before ascending into heaven, gave as his “great commission” to the disciples, whom he entrusted with the completion of his own salvific mission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:18-20).
4) Countless generations before us put those words into action and eventually each one of us was brought to that saving stream of life-giving water, where Christ, through a minister, cleansed us of our sins and filled us with God’s own life. On the day of our baptism, God claimed us as his own. We were made members of Christ’s own body (1Cor 12:12ff) by participating in his Passover; we entered into his death and into his own resurrected life (Rom 6:3-5). The Holy Spirit came down upon us and made us each a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1Cor 6:19). God the Father lovingly adopted us as his beloved children and inaudibly but truly said of us what he said of Christ, “This is my son, this is my daughter, my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased
5) Thus today we celebrate, again, not only the manifestation of the Lord’s identity but the epiphany of our own. St. John the Evangelist stressed the joy of this reality in his first letter: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed; when it is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1John 3:1-4). The deepest thing that can be said about any of us is that we are children of God. Even though the world, as St. John writes, “does not know us,” — even though the world does not register this reality — this is WHO WE ARE most profoundly. The most important day of our life — no matter how old we are, no matter how much or how little we’ve accomplished in the eyes of the world — is the day of our baptism. The Father’s words taking us as his own ( “this is my son, this is my daughter”) and telling us how much he loves us ( “my beloved, in whom I am well pleased”) have no expiration date. Even though sometimes we, like the prodigal son, forget who we are, treat the father as if he is dead and wander from home, whenever we come back to his embrace, he rejoices and restores us to our true identity (Lk 15:1-32).
6) The key for us, though, is not to forget who we truly are. St. Leo the Great, in his 5th-century homily for the Christmas season that comes to a close today, exhorts us to live up to the dignity we receive in baptism. The purpose of the celebration of Christ’s birth each year, above all, is to remind us of our own rebirth “of water and the Spirit” (Jn 3:5) and to live as “chips off the old [divine] block.” St. Leo urges us: “Christian, remember your dignity! Now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom. Through the sacrament of baptism you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not drive away so great a guest by evil conduct and become again a slave to the devil, for your liberty was bought by the blood of Christ.”
7) To remember that baptismal dignity and to live in accord with it constitute the task of the Christian life. We are called to live consciously as beloved children of God and act in the world such that others, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16). But to remember our dignity is, to some degree, to remember our baptism and that presents somewhat of a problem for most of us who were baptized before we were capable of having a memory at all. That is one reason why the Church places holy water fonts at the entrance of the Church, so that as we enter the Church, the first thing we do is to recall the saving waters of baptism. We make the sign of the Cross with the holy water to proclaim that by baptism we’ve entered into the Lord’s death and resurrection, and are picking up our cross and following him. We say “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” to remind us not only of the words of the baptismal formula that made us a child of God, but to recall that because of baptism we now share in the life and love of the communion of persons who is the Blessed Trinity. To remember our baptismal dignity is also the reason why the Church, at least every Easter, has us renew the baptismal promises either we, or our parents and godparents for us, made on the day of our baptism.
8 ) But if the day of our baptism is really the most important day of our life — and it is! — then we should revisit that day frequently in all its essential details. Just as a married couple grateful for the gift of their consecrated love for each other often opens up photo albums to “relive” and rededicate themselves to the marvelous mysteries they entered into, so each of us should frequently, with the gift of the imagination that God has given us, relive and rededicate ourselves to the reality of the spousal covenant we entered into with God through baptism. In this way, we will become more firmly grounded in WHO we really are and HOW we’re called to be.
9) And so today, briefly, I would like to review of what happened on the day of our baptism and ask each of you, as your “homework” for this Lord’s day and this week, to take this reality to your private prayer. Each of the events of the baptismal rite illustrates and grounds our identity and our dignity. Here’s what happened on that blessed day:
a. We were given our name — which always stands for who we really are. We received not only our baptismal (or first) name, but like Jesus, our most important “last” name — Christian, from the fact that we are spiritually related to Christ, the Messiah and anointed one.
b. The priest, our parents and godparents, “claimed us for Christ” by the sign of the cross on our forehead. In doing so, they were imprinting us —“ branding us” — with a deeper sense of belonging than that flowing from physical generation. We are Christ’s even more than we are theirs.
c. The word of God was proclaimed to us. Later in the rite, the priest said a special prayer over our ears and our lips, that the Lord, “who made the deaf hear and the dumb speak,” might “touch [our] ears to receive his word and [our] mouths to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.” The most fundamental reason why we have ears is to hear about God and the deepest reason we have the capacity to speak is to speak to and about Him.
d. All those present prayed to God, in the prayers of the faithful, that we might be bathed in light and given the new life of baptism; that we might be “faithful followers and witnesses” to the Gospel and led, by a holy life, to the joys of God’s kingdom.
e. The Litany of the Saints was then sung, in which all those present called upon the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter & Paul, the patron of the Church where we were baptized, our personal patrons, and all the saints in heaven, to intercede for us throughout the course of our life so that one day we might be numbered among them. The whole purpose of the sacrament of baptism, Pope John Paul II says frequently, is to become a saint, to become “perfect as [our] heavenly father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
f. We were exorcised — yes, exorcised. Even though many today believe that they were immaculately conceived, the reality is that we are born, thanks to the sin of our first parents, in original sin and subject to the evil of the evil one. Therefore the priest asked God to cast out the power of Satan, rescue us from darkness, bring us into the kingdom of his light, free us from original sin, make us temples of his glory and send the Holy Spirit to dwell within us.
g. As soon as this prayer was completed, we were anointed with the oil of catechumens “in the name of Christ our Savior.” Although most of us were catechumens for only a matter of minutes, each of us has this in common with those adult catechumens in our parish who are preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil.
h. The priest then blessed the water, asking God the Father to make it holy so that through it, in turn, we might be made holy. The prayer of consecration recalled all of salvation history, from the waters of creation, to the waters flowing from Christ’s side, to the baptism he commissioned his disciples to carry out throughout the world.
i. Then we — or our parents and godparents for us — renounced Satan, all his works and all his empty promises and professed our faith in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body. Each time, therefore, we profess our faith at Mass, or at the beginning of the recitation of the rosary, we are implicitly renouncing Satan and all his lies, and entrusting ourselves ever more to God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to the Church Christ founded, and to the teachings she, in Christ’s name, makes known to us. After all of this, the priest said, “This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” A Catholic should always glory in the gift of our faith, even if, at times, the behavior of some of those in the Church, even priests or bishops, might shame us.
j. The baptism itself then took place. The priest (most likely) infused water on our forehead three times, pronounced our name, and baptized us in the name of the Blessed Trinity. The miracle of our spiritual rebirth — our spiritual death and resurrection in Christ — took place.
k. We were anointed with sacred chrism on the crown of our head and the priest prayed, “As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you live always as members of his body, sharing everlasting life.” This anointing was the preparation for Confirmation, strengthening us to proclaim our faith (our prophet mission), offer our whole lives in a sacrifice of prayer to the Father (our priestly mission), and be faithful stewards of ourselves and those entrusted to us (our kingly mission).
l. We were clothed with a white garment, symbolizing the reality that we have “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14). We were instructed to “see in this white garment the outward sign of [our] Christian dignity” and to “take that dignity unstained into everlasting life.” That white garment of purity in Christ is the “wedding garment” in which we’re called to be vested for the eternal wedding banquet of heaven (cf. Mt 22:12-13).
m. Our baptismal candle was illuminated from the Paschal Candle, signifying that we were now burning with Christ’s own light. We were instructed to “walk always as a child of the light,” with “the flame of faith alive in [our] hearts.” We were told to keep it “safe from the poison of sin” so that when the Lord comes, we, like the wise virgins in the Gospel (Mt 25:1-13), might “go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom.”
n. Then the priest went to the altar and invited us all those present to pray, as children of God, to God the Father. Everyone present prayed “in our name,” because we were now truly brothers and sisters of our parents, godparents, relatives and friends. Every time we pray the Our Father we recall that dignity of our common divine filiation. That the priest went to the altar is significant, because it shows that the life initiated in baptism is meant to proceed to the nourishment of God’s children through the Eucharist. The communion with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is meant to grow throughout life via Holy Communion.
10) As we prepare now to renew our baptismal faith in the Creed and to receive that nourishment from the altar to which our baptism pointed, we ask the Lord to help us always to remember our dignity, so that we may always live as beloved children of so great a Father and come, one day, to experience the fullness of that life which we received as a seed on the day of our baptism, in the joy of that Father’s eternal home. We finish by praying once again today’s opening collect: “Almighty, eternal God, when the Spirit descended upon jesus at his baptism in the Jordan, you revealed him as your own beloved Son. Keep us, your children born of water and the Spirit, faithful to our calling!” Amen!