Baptism of the Lord – January 9, 2022
An old, disheveled man sees something happening in the lake and gets curious. So he proceeds to walk down into the water and stands right next to the Preacher.
The minister turns and notices him and says, “Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?”
The man looks back at him and says, “Yes, Preacher… I sure am.”
The minister then dunks the fellow under the water and pulls him right back up again and asks,
“Did you find Jesus?”
“No, I don’t think I did!” said the man.
The preacher then dunks him under a second time for quite a bit longer, brings him up again, and asks, “Now, brother, have you found Jesus?”
“Sorry Reverend, I did not.”
The preacher, looking a little frustrated, holds the man under the water for a third time, for at least a minute, then brings him out of the water and asks in a bellowing tone, “My Good man, have you found Jesus yet?”
The old, disheveled man shakes the water off his head and replies, “No, Reverend, I did not. But are you sure this is where he fell in?”
Yes, sometimes, like that man, we may not truly understand what the waters of baptism do for us and what they call us to be! Since most of us were infants when we were baptized, sometimes its significance is, through no fault of our own, overlooked or not fully valued. Well, with God’s help, all that’s going to change today! We’re going to get to know the reason for baptism, and how the Holy Spirit renews our baptismal consecration.
The best place to start is by asking the most fundamental question: Why do we get baptized in the first place? The simplest answer is that we get baptized because Jesus himself was baptized! As we heard in today’s gospel, Jesus was baptized by his cousin, John, who was preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah! The Messiah was to stir things up, to get people to re-think their relationship to God and to others, to cause people to turn away from their sins and to turn toward God! The Messiah was to usher in the Kingdom of God and to announce freedom for the sons and daughters of God! And so, by Jesus getting baptized, he was identifying with this messianic mission. But more importantly, Jesus, who himself was sinless, was identifying with us, in all our sinfulness, as only the Son of God, born in the flesh could do!
Water was a perfect symbol to use for this new identification, for water is associated with cleaning ourselves, and thus making visible the washing away of our sinfulness, our old way of life, and making visible our repenting, and starting over, without the burdens of past mistakes to weigh us down and discourage us. It was a symbol of resolving to live life in a new, cleaner way, a better way, with a clearer and more focussed vision of what God wants us to be and to do for us.
You may not know this fact but for roughly the first 400 years of the church’s existence, adults were predominantly the ones being baptized, because, in order to repent, we needed to acknowledge that we had sinned. With the development of the doctrine of Original Sin by St. Augustine, all that changed. He reasoned that all persons are marred and scarred by the sin of disobedience of Adam and Eve and that, for them to be saved, this original defect had to be removed. There should be no delay. The sooner the better. One didn’t want to risk dying without first being baptized. And so, the practice of infant baptism began to become more and more, widely accepted in the church, and is now, the normative practice in our church.
It must be noted that Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin, being based on a literal understanding of the creation account of humanity, poses problems for us today because the church no longer accepts the Fall of Adam and Eve as an historical account but sees it as a story that contains important truths about God and sin. More recent theologians have sought to rehabilitate the doctrine of Original Sin by seeing it as the sin of those who have gone before us that affects and influences our lives from the moment we enter this world, whether we know it or not, and even before we can ever consciously choose to accept or fight against those influences and the negative impact they may have on us. (What Catholics Believe, Examining the Sacraments of Initiation, Part 2 by Michael Way Skinner) Seen in this way, all of us are born with Original Sin.
While this doctrine may have been the primary motivator for the practice of infant baptism, an added bonus to baptizing infants was that it emphasized that we can’t earn our salvation. There’s no way we could ever be good enough to make it to heaven on our own. No, as we heard proclaimed in our second reading today, from the Letter of Paul to Titus, “When the goodness and loving-kindness of God, our Saviour, appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Titus 3:4-5 What this power verse tells us is significant. It reveals to us that God saves us by his own action, not by ours! All our sins are washed away through the waters of rebirth (also known as baptism) and so, baptism becomes the first sign of the eternal life gifted to us by Christ!
The waters of rebirth imply that we have already or will come to embrace Jesus as our Lord and Savior. For Catholics, the faith explicitly proclaimed by our parents and godparents at our baptism is the faith that immerses us in the Holy Spirit and, as St. Paul says in verse 7, “justifies us by his grace, that we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
Later on, as we become able to discern right from wrong, we eventually fall into sin. We lose our way. We think we can go it alone or without the grace of God in our lives. When this happens, we experience a spiritual death, of sorts. We lose the presence of the Holy Spirit, to some degree.
And to get it back, we need to be renewed in the Holy Spirit. This renewal process, connected to our baptismal consecration, begins with a recommitment to affirming our belief in Christ as the only one who can save us from sin and death. We must then allow God’s Holy Spirit to convict us of our sinfulness and then, to lead us to repent.
Once we do, it’s like we turn on a switch in a dark room. The switch is our faith, and once it’s turned on, the filament in the light bulb in the room begins to glow brightly. That glowing filament is the presence of the Holy Spirit. In that light, we have an epiphany! We can see clearly again! We can walk without stumbling! When we allow that glowing light into our lives, we can hear God clearly speaking to us in prayer; we can hear God speaking through us to others; we can recognize God living and acting and breathing all around us in one another and in our natural world. When we’re renewed in the Holy Spirit, we’re impelled to witness to the fruits of the Spirit in our day-to-day interactions. We become more loving, joyful, and peaceful. We become more patient, generous, and kind toward others. We become more faithful to God, gentle in our dealings with others, and are able to exhibit self-control when faced with trying people or circumstances.
We see this renewal by the Holy Spirit portrayed in our gospel today in the form of a dove, which was meant to harken the onlookers to recall the dove that Noah released and which brought back a freshly plucked olive leaf as the harbinger of a new world! Notice too, that the divine dance of the Trinity, of which Deacon Bruno spoke last week, is evident in today’s Gospel passage, as all three Divine Persons participate in the work of salvation. The Father sends his Son and is well pleased; the Son redeems us; and the Holy Spirit renews us! Indeed, it is the new life we have received in baptism that immerses us in God’s Spirit every day and gives us the fire, the passion, the desire to love and serve God and God’s people. May we never lose this fire and this drive and this passion! May we ever be charged with the Spirit of God to announce the salvation won for us by the birth of Jesus Christ into our world and extended to us by our baptism!
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