Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Baptism of the Lord, Year C
January 11, 2004
Is 42:1-4,6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Lk3:15-16,21-22
1) Today we mark the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Ordinary Time in the Church. It is fitting that we do so by celebrating the baptism of the Lord Jesus in the Jordan, because this marked the end of the Lord’s hidden life — which began in Bethlehem and continued in Egypt and Nazareth — and the beginning of his public ministry. His baptism in the Jordan marks the end of the beginning of his life and the beginning of the end.
2) But we mark today not only the baptism he received by water from his precursor, but the two baptisms he foretold. The first was his later baptism by blood. “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (Lk 12:50). This baptism was explicitly linked to his suffering, as he asked the apostles John and James, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” Just as he surrounded himself by sinners in his first baptism by water in the Jordan, so in his baptism by blood on Calvary he surrounded himself by thieves, and as his side was pierced, out flowed blood and water, which leads to the second baptism Christ prophesied — ours.
3) Our baptism was fundamentally different than Christ’s in the Jordan. What John the Baptist was doing was giving an external sign to those who were entering the waters of their need for repentance and the forgiveness of their sins, but no sins were actually being forgiven. He said a different type of baptism was on its way: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” This baptism foretold by John would be one that would not only symbolize our repentance and need for the forgiveness of sins, but actually bring about that forgiveness. By the power of the Lord’s second baptism with blood — his passion, death and resurrection — Christ himself, through his minister, would baptize us with “fire,” cleansing us of all debris due to sin, and make us temples of the Holy Spirit. The interior reality would correspond to the external sign. So important is baptism that it corresponded to the Lord’s final command to his followers before ascending into heaven, commanded, saying, “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.”
4) Just as Jesus’ baptism was the end of the beginning for him and the beginning of the end, so our baptism makes the end of our beginning of our life without God in original sin and the beginning of our end, which is a communion of God in this world and in the next. In the opening prayer, we beg God the Father, “Keep us, your children born of water and the Spirit, faithful to our calling.” This calling is a continual communion of life and love with God. Pope John Paul II has been losing his voice saying that this calling is nothing short of being a saint, someone who loves as Christ has loved us, someone who allows the life of Christ within to take over and grow. In his “Pastoral Plan” for the 3rd Christian Millennium — his marching orders for every Christian — the Holy Father says very clearly, quoting St. Paul, “This is God’s will for you, your sanctification’ (1 Th 4:3),” and then goes on to describe what, practically, that means. Listen to the Holy Father: The objective gift of holiness is offered to all the baptized. But the gift in turn becomes a TASK, which must shape the whole of Christian life … Since Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God…, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity. To ask catechumens: ‘Do you wish to receive Baptism?’ means at the same time to ask them: ‘Do you wish to become holy?’ It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’” (Novo Millennio Ineunte 30-31).
5) In baptism we enter into God’s holiness and we’re called to strive to grow in holiness all our days. This holiness, Pope John Paul II says, is inconsistent with any mediocrity. Sometimes Catholics seem to live as if all they’re trying to do is get a D- on the final exam of life. It doesn’t matter how well they correspond to the gift of life by God as long as they don’t flunk the test of life and end up forever outside of God’s presence. But from the day of our baptism, God has wanted us not to set our sights merely on “passing,” but on excelling — “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48 ). God wants each of us — and that includes YOU — to get an A+ with the gift of your life and will give each of us all the help we need to achieve it. The one thing he will not give us, though, is our “yes” to this plan — that he leaves to our freedom. We have got to provide the hunger.
6) The connection between our baptism and our sanctity is seen throughout the rite of baptism. Reviewing some of its central elements will not only help us to see this, but give us concrete ideas of how God wants us to respond to the gift of baptism.
a) In the prayers of the faithful, we ask God to “lead [the newly baptized child] by a holy life to the joys of God’s kingdom.”
b) We then pray the Litany of Saints, in which we ask all of those who have proceeded us into the womb of the Church (the baptismal font) to pray for us that we might one day become numbered among them.
c) We reject Satan, all his works and all his empty promises, turning away from sin and anything that would take us away from God, who is thrice holy. We then profess our adhesion to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and our belief in the Church Christ founded for our salvation, the communion of saints in which we’re inserted in baptism, and to eternal life, which is what awaits us if we remain in communion with God and the saints.
d) We are clothed in a white baptismal garment and the priest or deacon says to us: “You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.” The immaculately white garment is an external sign of the interior purity that God gives us in baptism and we’re instructed to take that dignity unstained to heaven.” Sins stain that garment, which is why Jesus, out of love, gave us what some saints have called a “second baptism,” the sacrament of confession, where we can bleach that garment in Christ’s own blood (cf. Rev 7:14) whenever we soil it by sin. This is the garment we’re called to wear to the wedding feast of the Lamb, here on earth at Mass, and at the eternal wedding banquet in heaven. Many of us will remember the parable of heaven Jesus gave us in St. Matthew’s Gospel of how after everyone had been rounded up, the king said to the one who had arrived at the feast without his wedding robe, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe,” improperly dressed? He then instructed his attendants to bind his hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness where there is weeping and grinding of teeth (cf. Mt 22:12-13). The wedding garment we’re called to wear to Mass and to heaven is our immaculately clean baptismal garment, a symbol of our purity of life.
e) Then the priest takes the Easter Candle and presents it to our parents and godparents and one of them lights our baptismal candle from it, as the priest says, “Parents and godparents, this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ. He is to walk always as a child of the light. May he keep the flame of faith alive in his heart. When the Lord comes, may he go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom.” Christ is the light of the world and we are called to be illumined by the light of faith and aflame with faith and burning love. That is what will make us capable of going out to meet Christ, like the five wise virgins in Jesus’ parable, who will go with him and all the saints into the heavenly banquet (cf. Mt 25:1-13). But we’re called not just to hold a candle symbolic of Christ’s light, but to become Christ’s light. During the Easter Vigil, the Church is pitch-black except for the light of the Paschal Candle. Then, after the deacon sings “Lumen Christi” (the light of Christ), the flame is passed to the tapers of those around, who light others’ tapers, who in turn light others’, until the whole Church is illumined by that flame originally coming from the Easter candle. In the same way, each of us is called to be lit on fire for the faith by Christ, and then go light everyone else on fire. That’s our baptismal call.
f) Next is the “Ephatha” prayer over the ears and mouth: “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.” The most important reason why we were given ears by God was so that we might hear his word. The most fundamental reason we were given a mouth was so that we might pray and proclaim our faith to his glory.
g) Finally, the whole baptismal rite begins with the question to the parents, “What name do you give your child?” The whole point of baptism is that name might one day be prefixed by the most beautiful word in any language, “Saint.” We were put on earth for no other reason than to become a saint, St. John of the Cross said, whether canonized or not. But we should always live in accordance with the dignity of that call.
7) The whole baptismal rite itself is meant to express concretely the point of baptism, the rejection of sin and Satan, the walking by the light of faith, the putting on Christ and his own holiness and keeping ourselves pure of heart, using the gift of our ears to listen attentively to God’s word in Sacred Scripture, through his Church and in the events of each day and praising him by our words and by our body language in everything we do.
8) Baptism is called a sacrament of initiation, because it is a beginning of our life with Christ. But like with physical life, our life of faith begun in baptism is called to grow. There is a beautiful prophecy in the Book of Ezekiel. God took the prophet to the side of the Temple in Jerusalem, from the east side of which, Ezekiel saw water flowing down from the temple mountain. God took Ezekiel about a thousand yards to the east, where Ezekiel saw that the water was now up to his ankles. God led him another thousand yards and the prophet saw that it was now up to his knees. After another thousand, it was up to his waist. After one thousand more, the water was over his head. God took Ezekiel to the bank of the river, where the prophet saw that the water was flowing into the parched desert and giving life to everything that came into contact with it (Ezek 47:1-12). This is a symbol of baptism and the growth we’re supposed to experience. We begin with the water of our baptism flowing from the side of the temple of Christ’s body on the Cross. By the time we begin our training in the faith, it should be up to our ankles. When we make our first communion, up to our waists. By the time we receive the sacrament of Confirmation, which seals our baptismal grace, we should be swimming in that stream of living water who is Christ (cf. John 4:10-14), allowing Christ to lead us wherever he, the river, flows. We’re supposed to be submerged in Him, who gives life to believers even in the deserts of their lives. Each year God gives us is another call to grow in the life of the faith. This feast of the baptism of the Lord and our recollection of our own baptism are meant to be a propitious time for us to take the “task” of our baptismal grace more seriously — the task of our holiness.
9) Simply and clearly put, the day of our baptism is the most important day of our life, no matter how many years God gives us, because it is day on which we began this great adventure of faith, of life, of love with the Lord. No matter what great things may happen to us over the course of our lifetime, nothing is more important. No matter what misfortunes we may encounter, nothing can take that great dignity and destiny away, save mortal sin. This truth was attested to very beautifully by the great St. Louis IX, King of France in the 13th century. He always signed his official documents not “Louis, Roi de France,” but “Louis de Poissy.” When those in his court asked him the reason for this practice, he said very simply, “Poissy is the place where I was baptized. That is more important to me than the Cathedral of Rheims, where I was crowned king. It is a greater thing to be a child of God than to be ruler of a kingdom: the earthly kingdom I shall lose at death; but the other will be my passport to everlasting glory.” Today we thank the Lord for the gift of our baptism and for all he suffered to make it possible. We thank him for the faith of our parents who brought us to receive this incredible gift. We thank him for all of those who have helped us to take it more seriously.
10) On the day of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, the heavens were open and the voice of God the Father was heard saying, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” On the day of our baptism, God the Father said the same thing:“You are my beloved daughter. You are my much-loved Son. How pleased I am in you!” God the Father who loved us enough to give us this incredible gift of entering into His own holiness will out of that same love give us all the help He knows we need to live in accordance with it, by hearing and spreading his word, by burning with the light of faith, by remaining as pure on the inside with the help of the sacraments of Christian growth as we were on the day of our baptism. As we prepare to recite personally the Profession of Faith that our parents and godparents recited for us on the day we became a child of God, let us reject Satan and cling ever more to God, swimming in the stream of living water who is Christ until that stream leads us to the Eternal Shore.
Praised be Jesus Christ!