BAPTISM OF THE LORD – YEAR C
One of the longest running quiz shows on television employs the unconventional format of flashing answers on a screen and then challenging contestants to guess the corresponding questions. Today’s liturgy is very much like that. The event that we celebrate today, Our Lord’s Baptism, is the answer; and it falls to us to tease questions out of the Scripture readings. To the thoughtful listener several questions present themselves, each one more focused, specific and precise. Because the people who ask the questions expect a satisfying answer, they are – as St. Luke informs us – full of anticipation.
In its most general form the question is, “Is God really at work here?” As such it is posed by Jesus immediately upon coming up out of the water of the River Jordan. Jesus has heard John the Baptist announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God, calling people to repentance, and performing the ritual of baptism. Jesus has heard the Baptist’s message and submitted to his ritual. He senses that this may the moment for him to leave behind his life in Nazareth and take up John’s ministry by baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire. But there is a moment of hesitation for Jesus. He needs to be sure that God really is at work here, and that it is the Father’s will that he assume that Baptist’s mantle. Jesus prays with that question in mind until the Holy Spirit descends on him and the Father’s voice is heard.
For the crowds who have come to be baptized, full of anticipation, the question is in their minds. But St. Luke puts it into words, “Are you the one who is to come?” The question is hardly a new one. From the time that Isaiah composed his intriguing, enigmatic poems about God’s servant – chosen, Spirit-anointed, and destined for suffering – Israel had been wondering, “Who is it that will establish justice on the earth?’ The crowds at the Jordan direct the question to John who, in his turn, points their attention to Jesus, the Lamb of God. “Are you the one with whom God is well pleased, and upon whom he has sent his Spirit?” Then the heavens open and a voice speaks.
Finally, and in its most pressing because most personal form, Cornelius asks, “Will Jesus, this anointed servant and beloved Son, do God’s saving work for me?” Cornelius and his family are Romans, Gentles, outsiders, sinners, non-partakers in the great covenant between God and his people. They are not children of Abraham and so have no claim on God’s mercy. Inspired by a vision, Cornelius has sent for Simon Peter and asks whether the salvation accomplished by Jesus can be his. Is Jesus Emmanuel for him and for his family? The response is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all present.
The questions raised in the Scriptures are as pressing for us today as they were for Jesus, for the crowds at the Jordan, and for Cornelius. Is God at work in our world and in our Church today? Is Jesus the answer to our most challenging problems, our deepest desires, our most pressing needs? Can I rely on Jesus to be there for me?
Perhaps the most compelling answers to those questions are provided by converts, by women and men who have come to Christian faith and accepted Baptism as did Cornelius. Their stories are as varied as their backgrounds and personalities – and just as fascinating. But the one thing they all have in common is the discovery of the person of Jesus, who went about doing good. Prayer an and the experience of attending Mass with friends or joining in Eucharistic Adoration on a college campus, introduced them to meeting Jesus “in real time” and finding themselves overwhelmed by his love for them. Often, they came to the realization that they had been attempting to play Jeopardy backwards. They had the questions, but only the Catholic Church had the answers they were searching for. As one convert phrased it, “When I made my decision to become Catholic, everything began to fit. I suddenly realized that I was in a story bigger than I had ever imagined before.”
Jesus’ Baptism introduced him to a story bigger than he had ever imagined before. And our baptism brings us into that story along with Cornelius and Paul and Augustine and Edith Stein and Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day and “a cloud of witnesses” Jesus love and power. So, when the big questions of life bring us up short, remember that the correct response is “Jesus.”