For the Western Church, the Christmas Season officially comes to an end this Sunday with our celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. The celebration of the Nativity is behind us and the new year stretches before us, so what better way to transition from Christmas to Ordinary Time than by celebrating the Lord’s Baptism. Baptism marks a new beginning… a rebirth. For Jesus, this marks the beginning of his ministry, and serves as an excellent transition from the infancy narratives to the story of his life and ministry. So this week we begin a new journey…
Psalm 12:2-3, 5-6
1 John 5:1-9
Our first reading is the famous “banquet invitation” which concludes 2nd Isaiah. This song from Isaiah is a fitting end to his prophecy on Israel’s liberation from Exile in Babylon. It sings of the goodness that God provides his people and welcomes them back into covenant with him. The imagery draws us in and we can feel God’s love and forgiveness. At the same time, however, we are reminded that we too have a role in this covenant, reminding us that the scoundrel should forsake his way. He continues to remind us, in that very popular passage, that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” As mere mortals it may be difficult for us to agree with what God is asking of us, but like a parent to a child, we should trust that God knows what’s best.
Our response comes not from Psalms, but from again from the Prophet Isaiah, in this case, 1st Isaiah where we proclaim that God is indeed our savior, and we should “draw water joyfully from the spring of salvation.” As a complement to our first reading, our trust in God, even when we would rather follow our own path, leads to joy and salvation.
Our second reading comes from the 1st Letter of John. Here John presents us with two important messages. First, in a passage that compliments what we heard in our first reading and our response, in that following the Lord leads to salvation. Here John exhorts us to “keep his commandments” while reminding us that doing so is not burdensome, and will in fact lead us to victory. John takes this one step further, however, reminding us that Jesus himself, in following the Lord, was the victor over the world (through his death and resurrection). He then goes on to remind us that Jesus, who came through water (at his Baptism) and blood (at his crucifixion) can attest, through the Spirit, that God’s promise of victory is true. John’s oratory in this letter is both poetic and layered with insight. In it you can hear John developing a style he will employ more fully in his Gospel.
This takes us to our Gospel, which in honor of the feast day we hear Mark’s account of the Baptism of Jesus. Typical of Mark, the story is short and to the point. Jesus has traveled from Nazareth down to John at the Jordon. While the distance Jesus had to travel was pretty significant, it’s not nearly as significant as what happens after he emerges from the water. As Mark describes it, the heavens are “torn open” and the Spirit, like a dove, descends on him, and we hear a voice from heaven proclaim “you are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” It’s an extraordinary moment, and marks the beginning of Jesus’ mission.
The story of Jesus’ Baptism is a Catholic favorite because for us it is the premier example of a “Sacramental moment.” When we think of Baptism or Confirmation or any of the Sacraments, it’s these images that we think of most… and rightly so. Unfortunately, it’s also the reason why that when we receive our own sacraments, we can feel a little let down... because the heavens didn’t open up… no doves descended… you don’t really feel any different than before.
We build up these expectations only to be disappointed when something miraculous doesn’t happen right at that moment. But that’s only because we’re not looking at these moments the right way. It’s not the moment of the sacramental act that is the miracle, but the grace we receive from it over time as we live out that sacrament. It changes us in ways that we don’t immediately see, but over time, when embraced and practiced to the fullest, we can see how it has changed and formed our lives in ways we could never imagine.