Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Baptism of the Lord, Year A
January 12, 2014
Is 42:1-4.6-7, Ps 29, Acts 10:34-38, Mt 3:13-17
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below
The written text that guided the homily follows:
Jesus’ baptismal epiphany
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!”
I mentioned last week in the bulletin reflection 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.
The baptism Jesus received and inaugurated
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 baptism 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 is the baptism Jesus inaugurated at the Jordan, when he by his own baptism made the waters of baptism capable of delivering on what they signified, not just representing the need for the forgiveness of sins, but actually forgiving those sins. This is 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).
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 risen 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.”
Our baptismal epiphany
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 his 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 as his much loved children and heirs (Lk 15:1-32).
Remembering our baptismal dignity
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 help us 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.”
St. Leo points out the essential truth that baptism changes us. Just like John the Baptist said to Jesus, “I must be baptized by you,” so each of us must be baptized to experience the fullness of God’s life.
On Wednesday, Pope Francis began a new series of Wednesday catechetical audiences in St. Peter’s Square on the seven sacraments. He began with baptism and he started by focusing on the difference baptism makes. “A question may stir within us,” he said. “Is Baptism really necessary to live as Christians and follow Jesus? After all, isn’t it merely a ritual, a formal act of the Church in order to give a name to the little boy or girl? … On this point what the Apostle Paul writes is illuminating: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4). Therefore, it is not a formality! It is an act that touches the depths of our existence. A baptized child and an unbaptized child are not the same. A person who is baptized and a person who is not baptized are not the same. We, by Baptism, are immersed in that inexhaustible source of life that is the death of Jesus, the greatest act of love in all of history; and thanks to this love we can live a new life, no longer at the mercy of evil, of sin and of death, but in communion with God and with our brothers and sisters.”
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, called to live that new life in loving communion with God and others, behaving in the world in such a way that others may witness the difference baptism makes as they see “[our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16).
Celebrating our baptismal anniversary
But to remember our dignity is, to some degree, to remember our baptism and that, as Pope Francis indicates, 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, the waters that made us holy sons and daughters of God. 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 along the path to sanctity. 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 our holy, holy, holy triune God. To remember our baptismal dignity is also the reason why the Church, at least every Easter — and as we’ll do today — has us renew the baptismal promises either we, or our parents and godparents for us, made on the day of our baptism.
But if the day of our baptism is really the most important day of our life — and it is! — then we should act like it is. That begins with celebrating the anniversary of our baptism every year. On Wednesday, Pope Francis said for the third time in his 10 months as Pope that every Catholic should know and mark the anniversary of baptism. I wrote an article on his first two appeals — from September and November — in this weekend’s bulletin. Four days ago he built on what he had previously said, stating to the tens of thousands of people present with him in Rome:
“Many of us have no memory of the celebration of this Sacrament, and it is obvious why, if we were baptized soon after birth. I have asked this question two or three times already, here, in this square: who among you knows the date of your Baptism, raise your hands. It is important to know the day on which I was immersed in that current of Jesus’ salvation. And I will allow myself to give you some advice… but, more than advice, a task. Today, at home, go look, ask about the date of your Baptism and that way you will keep in mind that most beautiful day of Baptism. To know the date of our Baptism is to know a blessed day. The danger of not knowing is that we can lose awareness of what the Lord has done in us, the memory of the gift we have received. Thus, we end up considering it only as an event that took place in the past – and not by our own will but by that of our parents – and that it has no impact on the present. We must reawaken the memory of our Baptism. We are called to live out our Baptism every day as the present reality of our lives.”
Just like happily married couples remember and celebrate their wedding anniversary each year, so with even greater joy we should celebrate the beginning of our Christian life. Parents should celebrate their children’s baptismal days with even greater festivity than birthdays. I always ask Godparents that if they’re going to buy a gift for their godchild, that the first and most important gift each year should be on the anniversary of the baptism. That way the Godchild will grow up with a knowledge and expectation of how important that day really is and never forget it. On the other hand, if it’s never celebrated but totally forgotten, they will take it totally for granted.
A few months ago, when we were doing the reregistration for all parishioners, on the sheet we printed in the bulletin and mailed to every home, I asked for the sacramental information for our computers, including dates of Baptism, first Communion, Confirmations and Sacramental Marriage. Most married couples — thanks be to God — knew their wedding anniversaries, but only a very small percentage of parishioners knew any of the other dates, despite the fact that in my cover letter I asked them to take a little while longer and look up the information from where they keep their important documents and records to be able to put it on the sheet. The fact that so few responses came in with baptismal dates listed makes me think that very few people even have their records. That’s why, today, echoing the Holy Father, I’d like to ask you that if you don’t know the date of your baptism, find it out. If you’ve lost your baptismal certificate, call or send an email to the parish office where you were baptized asking for a copy of your baptismal certificate and one for your loved ones. If you don’t remember where you were baptized, then references to the Church and date of your baptism would be contained in the registers documenting your first Communion, Confirmation and Marriage records, so if you remember the location of any of those Sacraments, you can track down the information.
I’ve asked for this information not only so that you may get to know the dates when you’ve received Baptism and the other Sacraments, but also so that I can pray for you in a special way. Every day, my principal job as your pastor is to pray for you, and I pray for all parishioners every day from 6-8 when I’m praying in the Rectory chapel and at the altar at daily Mass. But I do prefer to pray for parishioners in particular on the anniversaries of the great Sacraments they’ve received, so that I can ask God specifically to renew in you the graces of those Sacraments and help you in any area of life you need help. Since the data is now entered, I’ve been asking Pauline to print me out each week a list of parishioners celebrating the anniversaries of their baptism and sacramental marriage, so that I can pray for them specifically and take them and their intentions with me to the altar. Please help me pray for you in this way by doing the homework Pope Francis has given every Catholic in the world, not once, not twice, but three separate times already.
Rededication ourselves to the reality of our baptism
Knowing and celebrating the anniversary of our Baptism is an essential beginning, but in order to live out the reality of Baptism well, we should revisit it 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 help of photos of videos from our baptism and 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 on that day. In this way, we will become more firmly grounded in who we really, the risen life with Jesus we’re called to live, and are and the saint baptism calls us to be.
Dry-cleaning our baptismal garment
Today I’ll focus briefly on three elements of the baptismal ceremony that we should constantly be rekindling. Immediately after our baptism, we were clothed with a white garment, symbolizing the reality that in Baptism 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 adorned for the eternal wedding banquet of heaven (cf. Mt 22:12-13). Today is a day in which we’re called to examine whether that white garment is truly unstained. If we’ve sullied it by living in any way inconsistent with our Baptism, we’re called to get it cleansed by what the early saints called the “sacrament of second Baptism,” the Sacrament of Penance, wherein Jesus washes us and returns us back to our baptismal dignity.
Reigniting our Baptismal candle
Second, after we were vested with the white garment, 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.” Today is a day in which we can ask whether we’re truly on fire with love for the Lord, for others, for our faith, whether our hearts are like a tabernacle lamp burning for the presence of the Lord, burning in anticipation of heaven and Christ’s return. If not, today is a day to ask the Lord to reignite us, so that we can become “baptismal candles” burning to God’s glory in the world and helping to light the world on fire.
Using our ears and tongues for what they were principally intended
Finally, the priest said a special prayer over our ears and our lips, called the Ephphatha Prayer based on the Lord’s words healing a deaf mute in the Gospel (Mt 7:34). We prayed 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. Today is a day to examine ourselves whether we’re really hearing his word, listening to Sacred Scripture at Mass and reading it on our own, and treasuring God’s word as the words of eternal life. It’s also a good time to ask whether we really are proclaiming our faith and sharing Christ’s truth with our family members, with our friends, with our colleagues and fellow students, even with strangers. If we haven’t been, today is a great day to recommit ourselves to living out this two-fold reality of baptized life.
Seeking always to be well-pleasing to God
As we prepare now to renew our baptismal promises and to receive that nourishment from the altar to which our baptism points, 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 ever living God, who, when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him, solemnly declared him to be your beloved Son, grant that we, your children by adoption, reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, may always be well-pleasing to you!”
God pronounced himself well-pleased in us on the day of our baptism and the Christian life is a life in which we seek always to please Him. May God revivify in us the graces of the most important day of our life so that every day may be a day of baptized grace until the day when, God-willing, he welcomes us home as his beloved sons and daughters.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
IS 42:1-4, 6-7
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.
PS 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10
Give to the LORD, you sons of God,
give to the LORD glory and praise,
Give to the LORD the glory due his name;
adore the LORD in holy attire.
R/ The Lord will bless his people with peace.
The voice of the LORD is over the waters,
the LORD, over vast waters.
The voice of the LORD is mighty;
the voice of the LORD is majestic.
R/ The Lord will bless his people with peace.
The God of glory thunders,
and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
The LORD is enthroned above the flood;
the LORD is enthroned as king forever.
R/ The Lord will bless his people with peace.
in the house of Cornelius, saying:
“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him.
You know the word that he sent to the Israelites
as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all,
what has happened all over Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the baptism
that John preached,
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power.
He went about doing good
and healing all those oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him.”
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan
to be baptized by him.
John tried to prevent him, saying,
“I need to be baptized by you,
and yet you are coming to me?”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us
to fulfill all righteousness.”
Then he allowed him.
After Jesus was baptized,
he came up from the water and behold,
the heavens were opened for him,
and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove
and coming upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens, saying,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”