Fr. Roger J. Landry
Church of the Holy Family, Manhattan
Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
January 10, 2016
Is 40:1-5.9-11, Ps 104, Tit 2:11-14;3:4-7, Lk 3:15-16.21-22
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided today’s homily:
Jesus’ Baptism and Ours
Today’s celebration of the baptism of the Lord Jesus culminates the celebration of the Christmas season. It symbolically finishes Jesus’ three decades of hidden life as God the Father announces at the Jordan what was concealed from the beginning from almost everyone except from Mary and Joseph, a few shepherds, the wise men, Simeon and Anna and a handful of others: that Jesus is God’s own beloved Son in whom he is well pleased.
The celebration of Jesus’ baptism culminates the Christmas season in another way as well, because it points to our baptism, which is the means by which we enter into the saving work Jesus was born into our world to effectuate. We’ve been singing in Hark! The Herald Angels Sing since Christmas day, “Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.” Christ through his incarnation has made it possible for us through baptism to enter into the mystery and meaning of Christmas and the immortality, resurrection and second birth that that baptism promises in this world and forever. Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan precisely in order to bless those waters so that they could bring about this second birth, so that what John’s baptism pointed to could actually be accomplished: John’s baptism indicated our and others’ need for spiritual cleansing, for the forgiveness of sin, for the triumph over the death to which sins lead us, but John’s baptism couldn’t actually take those sins away or deliver those goods. This is the truth to which John the Baptist pointed to in today’s Gospel when he contrasted his baptism with the one Jesus and the Church Jesus founded would carry out: “I am baptizing you with water,” John said, “but one mightier than I is coming. … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” When Jesus entered the water to be baptized, he sanctified the water so that the sign of washing could actually bring about the interior purification it signified.
But the baptism Jesus would inaugurate would do far more than that. It would enable the sons of earth to be raised and to be born anew. As we see in today’s Gospel, when Jesus was baptized, three things happened. First, heaven was opened. Second, The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus. Third, a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; without whom I am well pleased.” And these three things all happen in the baptism Jesus and the Church with him would do, the sacramental baptism we ourselves received. First, heaven is opened; we’re not just purified of sin but made heirs of heaven and eternal life. In entering the Jordan, Jesus converted it into what he would later call, in his dialogue with the woman at the well in Samaria, “Living Water,” that would well up within us to eternal life, because we would be filled with Jesus that Living Water. Second, the Holy Spirit comes down upon us to dwell within us and make us his temple. The cleansing that happens in Baptism is precisely to make us an abode of God, so that he might dwell in us and us in him, not just here in this world but forever. And third, God the Father turns toward us, incorporated through baptism into his Son, and says, “This is my beloved Son, this is my much loved daughter, in whom I am well-pleased.” In Baptism, full as we are with Jesus the Living Water and the Holy Spirit the purifying fire, we are filled with the love of God the Father and made fit to please him now always. To please God is main fruit of this annual celebration of Jesus’ baptism, our incorporation into it, and all that that inner miracle effects. As we begged in today’s Opening Prayer, we asked Almighty God, “Who, when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him, solemnly declared him your beloved Son, [to] grant that your children by adoption, reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, may always be well-pleasing to you.” God’s pleasure was great on the day of our baptism, but it’s not supposed to stop there. God wants to help us to become well-pleasing to him always is by living out the reality of our baptism, the reality of our incorporation into Christ his Son, the reality of being filled with the Holy Spirit and with fire or zeal, the reality of being set free from sin so that we might live a new, holy life and pass through the open portal of heaven.
Baptism as God’s Gift of Mercy
All of these wondrous realities of baptism happen because of the merciful love of God, which is something that in this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, it’s important for us to ponder more deeply. In today’s epistle, St. Paul tells St. Titus and all of us, “When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.” Because of his mercy, God saved us through baptism, so that justified by grace — God’s indwelling presence within us — we might experience “second birth” inherit eternity. Our baptism is part of God’s merciful love and forgiveness. In today’s first reading, God through the Prophet Isaiah, said, “Comfort, give comfort to my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her [that] her guilt is expiated.” Those words initially destined for the Jews in exile in Babylon are meant for all of us born in exile due to original sin. And God seeks to comfort us through the rescue that takes place in us through baptism. In Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, he summarized almost his entire saving work. He entered among sinners in line waiting for John’s baptism, just like he would at his baptism of blood on Calvary between two thieves. Though he was without sin, he wanted to do penance with us sinners. What a great comfort this is! And it’s by his baptism in blood that Jesus sanctified the waters so that our guilt would be totally expiated.
Often because most of us are baptized as infants, we don’t have an adequate appreciation for the Mercy of God in the Sacrament of Baptism, this “bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” We receive God’s mercy before we’re aware of needing it, in a way similar to how the Blessed Virgin was kept free from sin preveniently due to her Son’s mercy on the Cross many years later. We’re baptized as babies precisely because of the importance of Baptism to salvation and our need, because of original sin, to be saved. But infant baptism also stresses that the grace of God is generously giving to us even before we ask or could merit it. It’s nevertheless crucial for us to meditate on this connection between Baptism and Mercy if we’re every going to appreciate God’s gift of mercy through Baptism. One way we could do this is through attending adult Baptisms. I’ve had the joy of celebrating the Baptisms of prisoners and some of these Baptisms are among the most beautiful I’ve ever done because they’re aware of the sins they’ve committed and what it means to have all of those sins mercifully forgiven.
But insofar as many of us won’t be able readily to have the experience of attending adult Baptisms here in the United States, I’d like to propose two ways that during this Year of Mercy we can enter into greater awareness of what God does for us in Baptism and how we’re supposed to respond.
Recommitting Ourselves to Respond to God’s Merciful Action in the Sacrament of Baptism
The first way is by reviewing the gifts God gives us in Baptism and the type of commitment we make in response to those gifts. In Baptism we enter into a Covenant with the God of Mercy. When we look at the Rite of Baptism, we can see God’s action and what he wants to be our reaction with his help.
- The first element of the Baptismal Rite is the proclamation of the Liturgy of the Word. God’s word is a great gift of mercy. The ancient Jews used to pray, “Teach me, Lord, your way that I may walk in your truth” and God does respond with mercy to that prayer. Jesus saves us not just through the water of Baptism but by clarifying for us how to live in response to it. St. Paul pointed to this reality when he wrote to the Ephesians, “Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word” (Eph 5:25). And in the Baptismal Rite, the priest (or bishop or deacon) prays over our ears and lips and says, “The Lord Jesus Christ made the deaf hear and the mute speak. May he touch your ears to hear his word and your lips to proclaim his faith to the praise and glory of God the Father.” To live by mercy means to hear and do God’s word, which cleanses and sanctifies us.
- The next element is the rejection of Satan, all his empty promises and evil works, and the profession that we’re building our lives on a trusting relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the holy Catholic Church in communion with all the saints. Our end of the Covenant, our faith, is after God has forgiven us, we reject all that Satan wishes to do to drag us down. We respond like the woman caught in adultery and “go and sin no more.” We live different lives just as we see in the converted Saints Peter, Mary Magdalene, Matthew, Paul, Augustine and so many others and follow the Lord along the way. To live in correspondence with God’s gift of mercy is to reject Satan and sin and live believing in God and his promises.
- The third element is water. In the blessing of the water to make it holy so that through it God can make us holy, we pray about what that means. We remember the food of Noah, the exodus through the Red Sea, John’s baptizing in the Jordan, the water that gushed forth from Jesus’ side as he hung upon the Cross, praying that “washed clean through the Sacrament of Baptism from the squalor of the life of old, [we] may be found worthy to rise to the life of newborn children through water and the Holy Spirit.” Those familiar with the Image of Divine Mercy that Jesus in the 1930s asked St. Faustina Kowalska to have painted, we see how he blesses us with the water and blood flowing from his side as he hung upon the Cross. That’s the water and blood that flows to us from the baptismal font. And just as God made the Prophet Ezekiel progress 1000 cubits at a time in the water flowing from the eastern side of the Temple into the desert — water that was initially at his toes, then his ankles, then his knees, his waist and above his head, giving life to the desert and resuscitating the Dead Seas — so we are meant to progress in the water flowing from the side of Jesus, the true Temple. We’re supposed to grow in our immersion in his Mercy.
- The fourth element is the white baptismal garment with which we’re vested, which is an external sign of what happens within us in baptism. We’re instructed to take that white garment unstained to the eternal life of heaven. The baptismal garment is the vestment we’re given by God for the eternal wedding banquet (see Mt 22:1-14), but we’re called to keep it clean. We’ll talk about how shortly. Keeping the garment symbolizing our souls clean so that we’re fit to enter heaven is how we correspond to the gift of God’s mercy in baptism.
- The fifth element is the lit baptismal candle we receive. Our Godfather goes to the Paschal Candle, the symbol of Christ and his Resurrection, and lights our Baptismal candle, the symbol of our life, and we’re instructed to receive Christ’s light and with the help of our parents and godparents to keep that light burning and the flame of faith alive in our heart so that when the Lord comes, we might go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom. This is an allusion to the way the five wise bridesmaids in the Gospel Parable continuously kept their lamps lit for the Lord’s return. The flame of gratitude to God and correspondence to his mercy ought similarly always to remain burning in us!
- The last element I’ll mention is the Our Father. Toward the end of the Baptismal Rite, there’s a procession with the newly baptized baby, with the parents and godparents and with all the Baptized to the altar where everyone prays together the Our Father as children of God. It’s there, as beloved children of God, that we ask God to forgive us our trespasses and strengthen us to forgive our brothers and sisters their sins. To live in accordance with God’s mercy is to seek to become “merciful like the Father” (the theme of the Jubilee of Mercy, Lk 6:36) by forgiving others as God our Father has first forgiven us.
The Christian life is to live in accordance with the mercy we’ve received in all of these ways.
Receiving Anew the Graces of Baptism in the Sacrament of Penance
But there’s a second, even more important, means to grow in our appreciation for the mercy of God given to us through Baptism. It’s through the Sacrament of Penance. The early saints of the Church fought very hard against heretical Christian sects that believed in “re-baptism,” but they said, while there is no such thing as a rebaptism, we can experience the graces of our baptism anew — almost a second instance of the graces of baptism — in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Pope Francis commented on this a couple of years ago in a catechetical address in St. Peter’s Square. He said, “Baptism is tied to our faith in the remission of sins. The Sacrament of Penance or Confession is, in fact, like a ‘second baptism’ that refers back always to the first to strengthen and renew it. In this sense, the day of our Baptism is the point of departure for this most beautiful journey, a journey towards God that lasts a lifetime, a journey of conversion that is continually sustained by the Sacrament of Penance. Think about this: when we go to confess our weaknesses, our sins, we go to ask the pardon of Jesus, but we also go to renew our Baptism through his forgiveness. And this is beautiful, it is like celebrating the day of Baptism in every Confession.” That’s why, for us to live out the promises of our baptism, for us to live as well-pleasing sons and daughters of God, as temples of the Holy Spirit, for us to keep the candles of our souls burning for the Lord, for us to keep our baptismal garments clean and growing as we grow, it’s essential for us to have regular, fruitful access to this Sacrament. Pope Francis added that Baptism “is the powerful intervention of God’s mercy in our lives, to save us. This saving intervention, [however], does not take away our human nature and its weakness — we are all weak and we are all sinners — and it does not take from us our responsibility to ask for forgiveness every time we err! I cannot be baptized many times, but I can go to Confession and by doing so renew the grace of Baptism. It is as though I were being baptized for a second time.” To profess as we do in the Creed at every Mass, “I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins” is to proclaim our faith in the mercy God gives us in Baptism and in the renewal of the graces of Baptism in every good Confession. And so to experience the fruit of Baptism, we should come frequently to receive the Sacrament of Penance that restores our soul to its baptismal splendor. I would urge you all to see in the Sacrament of Penance the most fruitful way to renew your baptismal Covenant with the Lord in his mercy.
Where the Mercy of God leads us
As I mentioned above, at the end of the Baptismal Rite, there’s a procession with the newly baptized baby, with the parents and godparents and with all the Baptized to the altar where we pray together, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Lord’s Prayer to God our Father. It’s fitting that we finish the Baptismal Rite around the altar, because Baptism and Penance lead us toward the altar, where by God’s design we enter into deeper Communion with God through receiving the very Body and Blood mercifully given for us on the Cross to take away our sins. It’s at the altar that the “blood and water” pour out from Christ’s side as a font of mercy for us. It’s at the altar that God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit unites us more to His Son through our entering into Communion with Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. It’s at the altar that God comforts us as his people. It’s at the altar that he cleanses for himself a people as his own eager to do what is good and strengthens us in our justification by God’s grace that we may be well-pleasing to him. It’s at the altar that we grasp onto our inheritance in hope of eternal life. Today as we celebrate Jesus’ baptism and remember our own incorporation into Jesus’ baptism, life, death and resurrection, we thank the Lord for the mercy he showed us in saving us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, through raising us from the earth and giving us second birth, and we ask him for the grace to trust in his mercy more, let it become the foundation of our life, and help us to pay that mercy forward.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 IS 40:1-5, 9-11
Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end,
her guilt is expiated;
indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill shall be made low;
the rugged land shall be made a plain,
the rough country, a broad valley.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Go up on to a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD,
who rules by a strong arm;
here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care.
Responsorial Psalm PS 104:1B-2, 3-4, 24-25, 27-28, 29-30
R. (1) O bless the Lord, my soul.
O LORD, my God, you are great indeed!
you are clothed with majesty and glory,
robed in light as with a cloak.
You have spread out the heavens like a tent-cloth;
R. O bless the Lord, my soul.
You have constructed your palace upon the waters.
You make the clouds your chariot;
you travel on the wings of the wind.
You make the winds your messengers,
and flaming fire your ministers.
R. O bless the Lord, my soul.
How manifold are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you have wrought them all—
the earth is full of your creatures;
the sea also, great and wide,
in which are schools without number
of living things both small and great.
R. O bless the Lord, my soul.
They look to you to give them food in due time.
When you give it to them, they gather it;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
R. O bless the Lord, my soul.
If you take away their breath, they perish and return to the dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.
R. O bless the Lord, my soul.
Reading 2 TI 2:11-14; 3:4-7
The grace of God has appeared, saving all
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
as we await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory of our great God
and savior Jesus Christ,
who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness
and to cleanse for himself a people as his own,
eager to do what is good.
When the kindness and generous love
of God our savior appeared,
not because of any righteous deeds we had done
but because of his mercy,
He saved us through the bath of rebirth
and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom he richly poured out on us
through Jesus Christ our savior,
so that we might be justified by his grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
Alleluia CF. LK 3:16
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
John said: One mightier than I is coming;
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel LK 3:15-16, 21-22
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”After all the people had been baptized
and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,
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 beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased.”