Jan 12, 2015

Baptism of the Lord, Year B

At first glance, it may seem odd that we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. Jesus didn’t need baptism, right? Baptism washes away original sin, restores us in relationship to God and gives us sanctifying grace. Sanctifying grace makes us holy and pleasing to God. But Jesus is already holy and pleasing to God, so why is this an important event in the Gospels? To begin to reflect on that, we need to return to the story of Israel.

When Moses led the people out of Egypt, they were heading towards the promised land. Because of their sin of idolatry at Mt. Sinai, they had to wander in the desert for forty years. In fact, it is not Moses who leads them into the promised land but he dies without ever setting foot in it. It is Joshua who leads the people into the promised land. Joshua. Because of the way that foreign names get translated we lose the connection between the name of Joshua and the name Jesus. The Hebrew names are the same Yeshua. I won’t go into the philological reasons for how Yeshua becomes Joshua in one case and Jesus in another. The important thing is to know that Jesus is the new Joshua. He is going to lead the people back into the promised land.

John the Baptist is the son of Zechariah, a priest who was serving at the altar of incense at the Temple when the angel came to tell him that he would finally have a son. We are so used to the story of John the Baptist that we don’t find it quite so odd that he is out at the river Jordan wearing camel hair and eating wild honey and locusts. Well, maybe we find it odd but we rarely think, “Wait. That’s not right. Shouldn’t John also be a priest serving in the Temple like his father?” In fact, he is at the River Jordan, which Joshua led the people across, calling people out of the promised land to repent. And Jesus goes out to John to fulfill in his own person the mission of Israel. Not because he needs to repent but because we do. Not because he needs to be sanctified, but because we do. After his baptism he goes out into the desert for forty days in exile from the promised land. He undergoes temptations and triumphs over them, so that we may know that he can triumph over our exile from friendship with God. He can triumph over our temptations. He leads us to the waters that cleanse us of sin. And he doesn’t just ask some odd ceremony from us but he undergoes it himself. In our case the waters of baptism sanctify us. In his case, he sanctifies the waters.

Yet we still have times of exile. We still experience the struggle of temptation and we discover our weaknesses in our sins. Well, he isn’t finished leading us yet. We have to keep following him. We need to follow him into the desert so he can teach us to triumph over ourselves and our enemies by relying solely on God. But where is he leading us? Heaven, of course. Paradise restored. We only have glimpses of what that looks like. But the path that Jesus walked didn’t go immediately from the Baptism to the Resurrection and Ascension. No, the path to Resurrection and living in the presence of God in eternal happiness is reached only through the Cross. From the Cross, when the soldier pierced the Sacred Heart of our Lord, there flowed out water and blood. Jesus took the waters of baptism in his heart throughout his ministry of preaching and healing. The waters he sanctified were there at the Last Supper, in the Garden of Gethsemane, at his trial, mockery, scourging and finally at his crucifxion. From the Cross he gives us back these sanctifying waters so that we, too, might be sanctified. We are invited to share the waters of Baptism because we are invited to share the Lord’s Death.

Dietrich Bonheoffer, a German Lutheran pastor who eventually gave his life because of his resistance against the Nazis, says that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This is starkly different than the perception we sometimes have for Christianity. God wants you to be healthy, wealthy and wise some television preachers will say. Theirs is a gospel of superficial forgiveness; of love without depth; of discipleship without suffering – it is cheap grace. We like to remember that God loves us just the way we are; that we really are his beloved children. And rightly so. But we must also remember that this One, upon whom the Holy Spirit descended and about whom the voice said “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” is the same one whom the Father permitted to be sacrificed in a most cruel manner.

Our baptism does make us children of God and disciples of the Lord. It is given to us by him. Without it the Christian life isn’t possible. What the Lord asks of us is a difficult thing, though his assistance by grace can make even the gravest of sufferings, even death, a happy thing or at least a very lovely thing because it also makes possible the Resurrection. We humans generally do not like the idea of difficult things, we certainly do not relish the idea of dying, whether that be the real physical death we will all undergo or the daily dying to self that is required of us as disciples of the Lord. But what is it that we take part in here? When we offer this holy sacrifice to the Father for the salvation of the whole world, are we not taking part in the Death of his most beloved Son?

St Paul says in the Second letter to the Corinthinians: “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but no abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (2 Cor 4:6-11).  We proclaim the Death of the Lord at every Holy Mass. Don’t we say immediately following the double consecration: “We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.”? Participation in his death by virtue of our baptism and this holy sacrifice requires us to repent, to confess, and follow Him who went before us to die so that we might live.

I will give the last word to Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ; living and incarnate.”

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