THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the human race is the length of time we require to grow up. Well before we have achieved our full measure of physical and psychological growth, most animals have all but exhausted their entire life span. The reason we take so long to mature is that, unlike the members of the animal kingdom, we humans must pass through that troublesome stage of transition between childhood and adulthood that we call adolescence. Adolescence is a notoriously challenging period of life even for well-adjusted persons, a time for experiencing new and sometimes frightening emotions, a time for establishing identity and assuming responsibility. But when adulthood is finally attained, what a wonderful feeling of independence and new self-confidence. It is very much like undergoing a second birth after the long gestation of adolescence.
Today’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is the celebration of a second birth. We celebrate Jesus’ birth, not as an infant, but his second birth into the fulness of manhood. Because the Gospel indicates that at the moment of his Baptism Jesus definitively accepted his vocation as Savior and Redeemer, with all the consequences that that vocation would have for his future.
At first, this feast seems to be overshadowed in importance by Christmas and the Epiphany. But, on closer inspection, this feast – perhaps more than any other – presents us with a concise statement of the meaning of human life from a religious point of view. In recent years, Scripture scholars have become increasingly interested in Jesus’ baptism, not only because it marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, but especially because it draws together the varied strains of our Lord’s person and mission: his birth, his public ministry, his death and Resurrection, his sending of the Holy Spirit.
The liturgy today makes a religious statement about human life in general, because it presents Jesus as the model or pattern of all human existence with its pain and its glory. To see Jesus as he emerges from the waters of the Jordan is, in effect, to see human life as God intends us to live it.
Jesus’ baptism is – before all else – an affirmation of life as all of us must live it. The Fathers of the Church tell us that Jesus did not have to undergo John’s baptism, but he freely submitted to it in order to identify himself totally with a sinful human race. Jesus affirms, in the act of being baptized, a religious meaning to life. That is, he indicates that life is a gift from God, but that it has limitations. At the moment he plunged beneath the water, Jesus knew that he was going to die. Whether he already knew that he was destined to die violently is not clear. But, at the very least, Jesus knew that the human life he was celebrating is limited most obviously by the fact of death – and, not just death itself, but the whole pattern of death in life that is illness, vulnerability to injury, and aging. Also, by undergoing a ritual act for the cleansing of sin, Jesus’ recognized the limits imposed on us by sin in all its forms. But then, having affirmed that life has its limits, Jesus began to push back those limits, to break through them. His rising out of the Jordan was prophetic of his victory over death and the voice of the Father was a commission to be the servant of the Lord who would struggle against the limits of human existence by forgiving sins and healing diseases and infirmities.
The liturgy would suggest o us today that we, like Jesus, are called to celebrate life as a gift of God and a task of faith. We cannot expect to be shielded from the ordinary pain and tragedy of life any more than Jesus was. Rather we are to heal one another as best we can, to forgive one another and then to hand ourselves over to God as his servants, trusting that he will accomplish his work through us.
We have been baptized into Christ Jesus. We are identified with the Lord in all his glory precisely because, at his baptism, Jesus identified himself with us and our struggle to realize the fulness of our human potential. We renew our baptismal covenant in this and every Eucharist; and, as we do, we pray for the grace to affirm life, even with its paradoxes and mysteries, and to work patiently until that day when death and morning are no more and the glory of the Lord is fully revealed in us.