Called to put on Christ
(Readings: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17.)
Introduction to Mass
Today is the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the end of the Christmas Season and the start of Ordinary Time.
For the gospel writers Jesus' baptism seems to have been the occasion when he stepped forward and accepted the unique mission God wanted him to carry out, and also the occasion when God, on his part, endorsed Jesus as the person who would inaugurate his Kingdom. Today's feast also highlights the significance of our own baptism, which summons each of us to be closely united with Christ and to be agents of God's Kingdom in the world around us.
To begin Mass let's think of the way that we've been shallow in appreciating the vocation we have as a result of our baptism. Let's ask God to forgive us and to strengthen our faith.
The end of Jesus' "hidden years" and his call into mission
I think there are a lot of significant aspects to this feast today but there are two aspects in particular that I would like to highlight. One aspect relates to Jesus' own baptism and the other relates to our Christian baptism.
In the first place, what the gospel writers were doing when they wrote down their accounts of Jesus' baptism was they were dramatizing a moment of decision in Jesus' life, a break with the past and the beginning of a new phase in his life and the start of a whole new vocation.
For thirty years or so - well into adult life by the standards of the time - Jesus had lived in ordinary, obscure and unexceptional circumstances, growing up and then working as a carpenter in Nazareth: the "hidden years" as they're called sometimes, because although they actually covered the greatest part of Jesus' life, there isn't any detailed information about the period at all.
In spite of that lack of information it would be true to say that Christians have traditionally seen that early period as a time of preparation for what came after. It was a period when Jesus' unique vocation was gradually taking shape, a period when it became clearer in Jesus' own mind that he was called by God to carry out some special mission or task.
If we think of Jesus' "hidden years" like that then obviously his baptism was an event which signalled the end of that period, and the beginning of the special mission - the period of preaching, healing, conducting exorcisms, and a time of increasingly bitter conflict with the religious leaders.
Jesus' baptism was the event where he consecrated himself or gave his life over, definitively, to that purpose. He embraced a role which he hadn't invented for himself but which he received and accepted from the Father.
That's surely what we're supposed to understand by the references to the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and the voice from heaven saying, "This is my Son, my favour rests on him". The work that Jesus was about to embark on had God's endorsement and stamp of approval. More than that: it was God who was commissioning the work.
This way of interpreting Jesus' baptism makes even more sense if we remember what happens immediately afterwards. Christ disappears into the desert for a long period of intense prayer and reflection and fasting: a final preparation, alone with God.
In the desert any vagueness that Jesus might have felt about his calling finally disappeared. His preparation was finished and his purpose became completely clear to him. So he came out of the desert and launched into the activity that only ended with his death - the activity which today's second reading describes when it says that he "went about doing good and curing all who had fallen into the power of the devil".
So that's the first point: when he stepped forward to receive baptism from John in the river Jordan Jesus was recognising and accepting the mission which he was being called by God to carry out.
Christian Baptism: a summons to discipleship and the grace to respond
The second point of today's feast relates to our sacrament of Christian baptism, because in many ways I think we would be right to interpret our baptism in the light of Jesus' baptism, or at least to draw certain comparisons.
It goes without saying I hope that when someone is baptised they're not only joining the Church community the way that we can get ourselves enrolled into membership of a social club or into a course of evening classes, or some other group of people with a shared interest in something.
What happens when someone is baptised is that they're being joined to, or united with, Christ himself. There's a vocation or a calling contained in the sacrament of Baptism, which is to be like Christ, to be "in" Christ and to "put on Christ" in St. Paul's phrase.
Ideally, when people come forward to be baptised they're accepting the call of discipleship: to follow the pattern of Jesus' life in their own lives, to take on his character and personality, to model their values and attitudes on Christ's values and attitudes. Or if it's a baby that's being baptised then the parents commit themselves to foster these values and this pattern of life in their child as he or she grows up.
The vocation which baptism gives also involves anticipating the same conflicts as Christ, and being ready to make the same responses that Christ made when he came under attack, i.e. refusing to give into hatred and refusing to indulge the desire to triumph over the people who are opposing us or obstructing us in some way. I wonder if you agree with me that this is an area where many baptised men and women actually part company with Jesus and don't follow his pattern of life very faithfully.
Another way to put it, maybe, is to say that although our baptism doesn't call us to be messiahs in the way that Jesus' baptism signified his role as Messiah, it does call us to embrace his messianic programme. In our own way, as followers of Christ, we're also called to "go about doing good and to cure those who have fallen into the power of the devil".
Baptism invites us to be open to God's influence, God's grace, and it communicates God's grace to anyone who cooperates with it.
Whenever people start to be changed by the influence God has on us then all the factors which in Scripture make up the reign of the devil start to give way and collapse: selfishness, lies, manipulation; treating people as objects and not as persons harbouring God's presence; hardening our hearts and refusing to show love. It's not an easy business, and it doesn't happen effortlessly, but when we are genuinely open to God it never fails to have an effect on us, and then through us on the situations we're involved in.
So those are the two basic points I want to make about today's feast. Jesus' baptism in the river Jordan was the end of a long period of preparation for him. For the gospel writers it was an event which dramatised the special call God made to Jesus and Jesus' acceptance of the call. Our Christian baptism has similar aspects: it invites us to "put on Christ" and model ourselves on him, and it gives us the grace to accept that invitation if we are willing to cooperate with it.