Sunday, January 9, 2011

Baptism of the Lord, Year A

    Every year the Church celebrates the Birth of Jesus. This is the great feast of Christmas. We have been celebrating it non-stop all of these last days. Today, however, is the last day in the Christmas season, the baptism of the Lord. I think it is quite interesting that the Church ends Christmas season with the feast of the baptism of the Lord.

    The first reason we do this, I think, is plainer: the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of the first part of Jesus' life and marks the beginning of his public ministry. Jesus baptism is a bridge between the feast of Christmas, which recalls the Birth of the Lord, and Ordinary time, which recalls his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. So as we celebrate this feast of the Baptism of the Lord we are bringing the early part of the Lord's life to completion and we begin to reflect on the ministry of Jesus.

    However, I think there is a more subtle reason why we recall the baptism of the Lord during the last day of Christmas. Christmas is the feast of the Lord's birth, but even more I think it is the feast of the incarnation itself: the great mystery of God's love. God so loved the world that he sent his Son to save us. Because we could not return to God, God came to us, and not as an outsider, but as fully human, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, fully man and fully God. So, the baptism of the Lord is a good place for us to reflect on the incarnation.

    As fully God, Jesus had no need for repentance, for he had no sin. So when Jesus goes into the water he blesses the water with his presence. In fact, many writers in the history of the Church have seen the Lord's baptism as the conferral of power onto water so that Christian baptism would be possible. We see an image of this at the Easter vigil, where the Paschal Candle, a symbol for Christ, is lowered into the water as a way to bless the water that will be used for baptism. Also, as fully human, Jesus takes us all with him into the waters. Jesus, who needs no repentance, repents for all of us. He takes our sin and our brokenness upon himself, buries it in the Jordan River and brings this repentance to completion on the Cross. So at the Lord's baptism we see that Jesus, as fully God, brings a new power to the waters of earth, and, as fully human, takes our sins and shortcomings upon himself.

    However, I have always found strange is the fact that Jesus receives the Holy Spirit. The dove descends upon Jesus and it says that he is filled with the Spirit. Wouldn't Jesus have already been full of the Holy Spirit, I mean he is fully God. He is the second person of the Blessed Trinity, which means that he is always fully in communion with the Father and the Spirit at all times. Why would the Spirit descend? Earlier this week in the Office of Readings, St. Cyril of Alexandria proposed a beautiful interpretation. The Spirit came upon Jesus not because he needed it, but because we need it. When the Spirit descends upon Jesus it enters into humanity.

    So, when we celebrate the baptism of the Lord it prepares us for Ordinary time, it marks the beginning of the public ministry of Christ, which is culminated in the Cross. It is also a profound reflection on the mystery we have been celebrating, namely the Incarnation of Christ, where God becomes human so that humans might return to God. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan today, not because he needed it, but because we need it. Jesus receives the Spirit today not because he needed it, but because we need it. And we gather today to worship God not because he needs it, but because we need it.

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