A reflection by Fr. Ron MacDonell, S.F.M., on Isaiah 40.1-5, 9-11; Titus 2.11-14, 3.4-7; and Luke 3.15-16, 21-22
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, ending the cycle of Christmas. We began with Advent, the time of preparation for celebrating the Birth of Jesus, followed by the Feast of the Holy Family, the Solemnity of Mary, and the Feast of the Epiphany. Today, Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry.
St. Luke tells us that there was great expectation among the people for the long-promised Messiah. Was John the Baptist the anointed one? They yearned for God’s consolation to come to them, God’s salvation from their suffering. The prophet Isaiah spoke of one who “will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
John, the holy man from the desert, calls people to repentance, to change their way of life by being baptized in the waters of the Jordan. John, however, clarifies that he is not the expected one. Rather, someone will come after him and baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
It is Jesus who is the expected one. Though he is without sin, he insists on being baptised by John. Afterwards, when he is praying, an amazing thing happens: the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove and a voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.” Jesus is the anointed one, blessed by God, recognized as “my Son.” It is with this blessing, this favour and grace of God, that Jesus begins his ministry of healing and service, of calling people to conversion and to seek God’s Kingdom.
What does “baptism” mean? The word comes from the Greek baptizein which means “to immerse, to dip in water.” I discovered something interesting in Brazil in the 22 years I worked among the Makushi people. They live on the hot, dry savannah plains just north of the jungle, bordering Guyana and Venezuela. I studied their language, and when I baptised people, I learned that the expression for “I baptise you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” is translated in their language as “I wash your face in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is a wonderful way of understanding the commitment made in baptism: we become cleansed, letting go of our old way of life and letting ourselves be washed by God’s love, by Jesus’ peace, by the strength of the Holy Spirit.
Most of us were baptized when we were small. We may not remember our baptism. The date of our baptism is just as important as our birthday, even more so because it marks our spiritual birth. The special grace received at baptism was nurtured by our parents. They taught us to follow Jesus and to participate in the Church community. St. Paul tells us that “through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,” poured out richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, we are “justified by his grace” and “become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
Later in life, we may experience a deepening of our baptism. It is when Jesus is at prayer that he receives the blessing from God, that he hears God call him “my beloved.” Have we heard God call us “my beloved” in our prayer?
Jesus lived his life of ministry intensely for three years until those not in favour of his life of love and compassion condemned him to death. But God raised his beloved Son to new life, to the peace of the Resurrection. When we are baptised in Jesus’ name, we too are promised and given this new life. We are baptized and resurrected in Jesus. We don’t need to do anything spectacular to live out our baptism. We start at home in our families, in our workplaces, in our communities. Living our baptism means feeling that we are sisters and brothers of Jesus and we too are called “beloved.” It means treating everyone, even the people we don’t like too much, as God’s beloved. That way, we will live the baptism of fire, the fire of the Holy Spirit, the fire of love.