A reflection by Fr. Dave Warren, SFM, on Isaiah 55.1-11, 1 John 5.1-9 and Mark 1.7-11
There’s an unusual organization in the Greater Toronto Area known as the Toronto Polar Bear Club. Each year on January 1, the members of the club put on their bathing suits and run into Lake Ontario. This year 564 men and women “took the plunge.” The temperature was –29 º with the wind chill. These brave souls raised over $77,000 in pledges for Habitat for Humanity.
At some point in our lives, we all “take the plunge.” At some point in our lives, we all leave our “comfort zone.” We leave our “comfort zone” when we do something new.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus “takes the plunge.” He presents himself to John the Baptist to be baptized. Why did He do it? Why did Jesus submit to baptism?
It was a scandal to the early Christians that Jesus, who was the Son of God, would submit to John the Baptist. It was a scandal that Jesus who was sinless would submit to baptism at all. And so, why did He do it? Why did Jesus submit to baptism?
Jesus submitted to baptism as an act of repentance. It was not an act of repentance for His own personal sins. It was an act of repentance for the sins of society. It was the admission that He belonged to a sinful society and a decision to opt for a different kind of society.
Palestine in the first century was a society based on wealth, respect, and power. Wealth: a small number of wealthy landowners controlled most of the wealth. Respect: the priests and the religious teachers received respect; those who didn’t observe the details of the Law of Moses were despised as “sinners.” Power: the Romans ruled Palestine with the collaboration of the Temple priests and the noble families.
Jesus opted out of a life defined by wealth, social status, and power. He left “civilization” behind and went out into the wilderness to meet John the Baptist. There’s nothing wrong with civilization. There’s nothing wrong with education and medical care! Civilization does have its benefits. (One of the benefits of civilization is heated homes.) But civilization is a thin veneer. Under the surface of “civilization” there is a lot of violence. There is greed, competition, and domination over people – and most of it is perfectly legal!
When Jesus went out into the wilderness, He left behind the values of His world and plunged into a new world. And when “Jesus took the plunge,” the Spirit of God descended upon Him. The Spirit did not descend upon Jesus to make Him feel good; the Spirit descended upon Jesus to empower Him to change humanity. In the power of the Spirit, Jesus began His work of changing humanity.
On the day of His baptism, Jesus “took the plunge.” On the day of our baptism, we too “took the plunge.” On the day of our baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon us. Our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Charismatic Movement speak of being “baptized in the Spirit.” “Baptism in the Spirit” is a gift. It’s a powerful emotional experience. But baptism is not about rapture; baptism is about rupture. If we do experience rapture, well and good. But the rapture is for the sake of the rupture. Baptism is about a break with life as life is defined by the world around us.
On the day of our baptism we “took the plunge.” On the day of our baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon us. He descended upon us – as He descended upon Jesus – not to make us feel good, but to make us agents of change in the world.
Some say it can’t be done. They say that you can’t change people. Well, God begs to differ. The baptism of Jesus is the end of the old humanity and the beginning of a new humanity. The baptism of Jesus is a new creation. At the first creation the Spirit hovered over the waters. Now at the second creation, the Spirit appears over the waters of the River Jordan. After creating Adam and Eve, God saw that that humanity was very good. Now at the second creation, God says that He is well pleased. The baptism of Jesus is the beginning of a new humanity.
The old humanity lives by acquisition, competition, and the exploitation of others. The new humanity lives instead by cooperation, by sharing, and by service to others. As John says in today’s second reading, the new humanity lives by love.
Some say it can’t be done. They say that you can’t change people. Well, God begs to differ. John also says in today’s second reading, “Whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith” (1 John 5.4). The world is not invincible; there is an alternative: the world can be changed. (The most powerful weapon in the world’s arsenal is the idea that there is no alternative. The most powerful weapon in the world’s arsenal is hopelessness.)
Victory belongs to those who believe. We are the people who believe that the baptism of Jesus is the beginning of a new humanity.
There’s an unusual organization in the Greater Toronto Area known as the Christian Church. They have a strange initiation ritual which involves the shock of getting wet. They are willing to step outside their “comfort zone.”