Sunday 13th January 2013 – Baptism of the Lord

Baptism of the Lord Year C Lectio divina on Lk 3,15-16.21-22

The early Christians had serious problems with the Baptism of Jesus by John. John’s baptism was a sign of conversion of those who looked forward to the Kingdom, and was not seen as a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Luke resolves the problem by saying that John declared his unworthiness in the presence of Jesus, and the inefficacy of his baptism compared to that of Jesus, but especially by reflecting deeply on the historical event. At the very moment when Jesus proclaimed his solidarity with sinners, God came into the open to proclaim Jesus as his beloved Son. Jesus allows himself to be baptized, but he has no need to be converted. It is God who acknowledges that he is the Father of Jesus. His Word and his Spirit both identify in a perceptible way, the one in the crowd whom God reveals as his beloved Son, at the same time revealing himself as Father. In this way, this problematic episode is transformed into a manifestation of the personal mystery of Christ and the revelation of the vocation of every Christian. God reveals himself to the world through all the baptized, as he did in Christ, since they are also children of God, and he pours out his Spirit on all of them. The baptism of Christians is not a rite of conversion to God. It is not the believer who is converted to God, but God who is converted publicly as Father.

15 At that time, as the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” 21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

I Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it

After his account of the birth and infancy of Jesus (Lk 1, 5-2,52), Luke begins his gospel proper in the same way as Mark begins his (Mk 1,2-11), by introducing the Baptist and his mission, showing its place within the history of mankind (Lk 3,1-3), and demonstrating how God’s promises are fulfilled (Lk 3,4-6).

The text offered in the liturgy is an abbreviated version of Luke’s account of John the Baptist (Lk 3,1-20). What is written about the person and mission of the Baptist serves only as an introduction and it contrasts with what is said about Jesus (Lk, 3,1-22). The difference between the two is clear and the superiority of Jesus is evident. The words of John about what he does – baptizing with water – and what he says about Jesus who will baptize with the Spirit and with fire (Lk 3,16), are confirmed, not by the word of Jesus, but by the word of God himself when he speaks about his beloved Son (Lk 3,22). Jesus will baptize with the Spirit because the Spirit descended and rested upon him. John is but an unworthy sign. Jesus is the beloved Son of God. Nevertheless, the figure of John is still important (Lk 3,15). Luke acknowledges the wonder that his presence caused and the messianic hopes awakened by his presence. It suits Luke to present John as the precursor who foretells the one who is to come, by word and not by what he himself does.

The brief account of the Baptism of Jesus (Lk 3,21-22) should not be underrated. It is important to recognise that Jesus had himself baptized, choosing to be part of a popular movement of conversion, and this is highly significant. As Jesus accompanied his people on their journey of conversion to God, the Father came to meet him. It was when Jesus was praying after his baptism with water, that he was baptised with the Spirit and God was revealed. It was not his baptism that made Jesus the Son of God. It was God who proclaimed it publicly through his baptism and while Jesus was praying. Prayer nourishes the awareness of being a beloved son, because it gives God the opportunity to reveal our identity with greater clarity.

II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life

After our Christmas celebration of the Incarnation of God, we begin a new stage today. The Gospel records the Baptism of Jesus, without doubt one of the most decisive incidents in his life. At Christmas, we contemplated God as a little child at Bethlehem. Now we see Jesus on the banks of the River Jordan – the God-man now an adult – submitting to the baptism of John, which was a public rite of conversion.

This decision of Jesus does not surprise us, only because we know him well. However, it should provoke in us a sense of wonder, if not indeed of shock. John was preaching conversion because he expected an imminent punishment for sinners. In this context, baptism was a necessary step for those who were far from God. They knew he was about to come and they feared a judgment of condemnation. This makes it hard to understand the decision of Jesus to receive baptism, if we do not take seriously his decision to become incarnate. He wanted to come close to us in our problems and in our sentiments, in the reality of our lives and our hopes. He did not need to be converted. He chose baptism in order to come close to us.

Jesus chose to receive baptism of water, though he had no need of it, since he could baptize with fire and the spirit. By this decision, he teaches us, first of all, that he wanted to become like us in everything. He does not ask anything of us that he has not done himself. He chose to appear in need of baptism and he fulfilled that need. To make the call to conversion easier, he chose to be in solidarity with sinners, without, however, sharing their sinfulness, but becoming like them in repentance. To become more like man he sought the salvation that he came to give us. The lover does not hesitate to put himself at the level of the beloved. Through his baptism, Jesus has given us proof of his love. Anyone who comes to ask for conversion shows that he has need of it. So as not to appear remote from us sinners, Jesus joins the number of those baptized by John. He joins the ranks of those who need conversion, so as not to humiliate those to whom he preached repentance. In Jesus, we have a God who, in order not to hurt our feelings, comes down to our level. Such a God, like us in all things except sin, merits all our respect.

Jesus submitted himself to John’s baptism, though he had no need to do so. God himself made that clear, when he said that this was his beloved Son. Precisely because his baptism incarnated God’s desire to be close to sinners, this man belongs to God and has God as his Father. In his act of drawing close to mankind, Jesus revealed his true nature as the beloved Son of God. God declares himself the Father of whoever knows him and loves him and does his will. Jesus joined in solidarity with all those men and women who were trying to return to God. They turned to God, because they wanted to put God at the centre of their lives. If Jesus is recognized by God as his Son, in a seemingly inopportune moment such as his baptism, when he joined the ranks of sinners, it means that all who acknowledge that they are sinners have opened the way for God to acknowledge them as sons and daughters. Acknowledgement of our guilt, without excuses or omissions, makes us children of God, like the beloved Son. It is hard to understand why we Christians of today make such efforts, perhaps even unconsciously, to forget our sins and our need for conversion. We miss out on a chance to be recognised by God as his children, and for God to declare himself our Father.

When we are converted to God, God is converted to become our Father. Recognizing our sin is a necessary condition for returning to God, and allows us to be acknowledged as children of God. What happened to Jesus as a grown man can happen also to us, if we imitate the maturity of his faith. A Christian is mature, not when he thinks he is perfect, but when he acknowledges his immaturity and confesses it. Then God will declare him as a child of God, as he declared Jesus his beloved Son. If we admit and confess our failures and limits, they do not separate us from God but draw us closer to him. He is not a terrible judge but a loving Father. If we have no other way of turning to God, and no other way to overcome our weakness, we can at least acknowledge our sins and so return to God. As we come back to him, his voice and his embrace will surprise us. We will meet a Father who accepts us as his children. A God like that deserves our complete trust.

During ordinary time, we accompany Jesus yet again as he explains to us better what our God is like, and how he wants to relate to us. Accompanying him as he walks, and listening to him as he preaches, we will come to know better this God who is his Father, and we will recognize better our inability to meet his demands. This should not discourage us, however. Because we have been baptized like Jesus, we can relate to a God who acknowledges us as his sons and daughters. We are among those who want to have him as our God, despite our sins. If we take Jesus, and all he said and did, as our programme for the year ahead, it will enable us to rediscover ever more clearly the awareness that we are children of God. Like Christ, every Christian can feel that he is a child of God and recognized as such by God. It is a question of turning to God, without being discouraged, and with all the effort it requires. The baptism we received one day long ago obliges us to make God our one and only God, and God has committed himself to acknowledging us as his beloved children.

It should not be too difficult or painful a task. We need to remember that we lack nothing to enable us to become children of God. What father is satisfied with his children? And if this dissatisfaction increases as the children grow, even as adults they do not cease to be children. The father is no less a father if he is not happy with his children. This is the case with us, and this is the case of God with us. We do not need to make him happy to have him as our father, but we must acknowledge him as father and recognize that we are his children. He does not have to put up with us, because we are his beloved children. It does not matter to him if we are not the best among his children. It is enough that we acknowledge him, once and for all, as the only God of our lives, for him to love us and understand our weaknesses.

The baptism of Jesus reminds us that we have a God willing to declare that we are his children, provided we are willing to confess that we are not worthy to have him as our God. God declares himself the Father of anyone who admits he is an unworthy and undeserving child. God will call us beloved, when we confess that we have not loved him enough. Does he not deserve all our love? It is not asking too much for us to give ourselves completely to such a God. This was the God of Jesus on the day of his baptism. He will be our God if we keep alive every day of our lives the commitment we made on the day of our baptism, to desire him and seek him above everything else. We should be overjoyed to know that, from the moment we were baptized, God has considered us his children, equal to Jesus. We need to realize that it is not enough that God wants to be our Father – we have to want to be his children. We have a whole year, a whole lifetime, to discover what it means to be children of God.

Is it not worth trying?