“I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8)
St. Maximus of Turin beautifully sums up the essence of our celebration today in these words: “At Christmas, Jesus was born a man; today he is reborn sacramentally. Then, he was born from the Virgin; today he is born in mystery. When he was born a man, his mother Mary held him close to her heart; when he is born in mystery, God the Father embraces him with his voice when he says: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased…”
For us to properly understand what happens at Baptism, let us go back to the book of Genesis. Once upon a time, God became tired of sin in the world, he regretted why he ever created man in the first place so he decided to destroy everything with water and begin afresh once again with Noah and his family. So he commanded Noah to build the Ark. For many days, it rained heavily until the whole world was immersed in water. In that episode, God literally baptized the world as a whole with water.
Another way to understand what happens at Baptism is by taking our minds to the crossing of the red sea by the Israelites. The crossing of the Red Sea was a miracle and at the same time, it is a symbol of our movement from captivity to freedom. In the old life, we were slaves to sin, slaves to the carnal desires of our hearts, but now we are no longer under the captivity of sin.
Coming to the New Testament, John who became known as the “the Baptist” introduces the concept of Baptism as a necessary preparation for the coming of the promised Messiah. Matthew tells us: “Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Matthew 3:5-6). In other words, the baptism of John required an oral confession and public renunciation of one’s sins.
Now you may wonder, why did Jesus, who obviously had no sin, present himself for Baptism? And what are the implications of this action of Jesus for us Christians today?
1. Avoid Being a Mediocre Christian.
In Matthew’s Gospel, when John the Baptist tried to resist Jesus from receiving baptism knowing fully well that Jesus had no sin, Jesus said to John: “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15). The problem with today’s Christians is that most of no longer consider it important to aim at fulfilling righteousness.
While we strive for excellence in other aspects of life, we seem to be very comfortable with being average Christians. At times, we behave as though we are ashamed of our Christian identity. Mediocrity (the desire to do the barest minimum) has eaten too deep into the fabric of our modern-day Christian morality so much so that certain actions which would have been ruled out as abominations amongst us today are now regarded as normal.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6). How deep is my hunger and thirst for righteousness? Jesus knew that he had no sin but he did not allow this fact to get into his head. He went all the way to John to seek baptism because He believed John was doing the right thing. What efforts am I making each day to seek out righteousness?
2. Never Shy Away From the Sacraments.
By presenting himself for Baptism, Jesus not only sanctifies the waters of the Jordan, but He also institutes the sacrament of baptism itself as a valid means of attaining salvation. In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) We read in today’s Gospel passage that when Jesus was baptised, the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit came descending upon him like a dove. This means that Jesus was baptised by water and the Holy Spirit thereby fulfilling John the Baptist’s prophecy: “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8)
While John’s baptism was merely symbolic of the cleansing of one’s sin, Jesus, by participating in this elementary baptism, elevated it to the level of a sacrament such that when we are baptised, the Holy Spirit is present and apart from the washing away of our sins (including original sin), the voice of God the father is heard adopting us as His children as He said of Jesus: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
A Christian who fails to take full advantage of these sacraments does himself great disfavour. If Jesus did not look down on John the Baptist while presenting himself for baptism, why do Christians today look down on the priest at the sacrament of penance? Of course, you can always worship God in your room but if Jesus left his room to institute the sacraments, it means that our worship of God is incomplete without the Sacraments.
3. Baptism is a Beginning; Not the End of the Christian life.
Even though our Gospel passage today ends in verse 11, if you read Mark 1:12, you would see another reason why Jesus presented Himself for baptism. As Mark puts it, just after His Baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. (Mark 1:12). The same sequence of events is recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus Baptism was part of His preparation to begin His public ministry. No wonder the Church describes Baptism as a Gateway Sacrament. It is a sacrament of beginning; a sacrament of rebirth; a sacrament of New Life.
Like a new born baby abandoned by its parents and left to fend for itself, Christians today completely abandon their spiritual life and stop making efforts to grow once they have been baptised. This is why most of us fall back to our old ways of life and become even worse than we were before baptism. While Baptism makes us children of God, it is our way of life after Baptism that determines whether or not we are still members of God’s household. In our second reading today, St. John says: “By this, we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.” (1 John 5:2-3)
The questions we need to ask ourselves today are: Am I still faithful to my baptismal promises to which I said: “I do” on the day of my baptism? Have I given up in my resistance to sin? You may have been baptised but do not forget Jesus warned us: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’” (Matthew 7:21-23). Again Jesus would say: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mark 3:35)
Conclusion: Seek the Lord While He May be Found.
The prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading perfectly summarizes the three lessons we have learnt today by stating: “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:6-7). Have you being a mediocre Christian? Repent! Be like Jesus who desired to fulfil all righteousness. Have you stayed away from the sacraments for a long time? Repent! Jesus believed in the outward signs that convey inward graces to our souls. Have you abandoned your baptismal promises? Repent! Ask for God’s mercy; renew your baptismal promises and start all over again.
Let us pray: God our Father, bring us to new life that we may live in a manner worthy of our calling as Christians. Amen.
Bible Study: Isaiah 55:1-11, Resp. Isaiah 12, 1 John 5:1-9, Mark 1:7-11).