Christ's Baptism; Baptism in Christ
(Readings: Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7; Acts 10: 34-38, Mark 1: 7-11)
Introduction to Mass
Jesus went to his cousin John for baptism in solidarity with all those who recognised their need for God and their wish to place themselves under God's rule. Later, the Christian community came to see this event as the occasion when Jesus was consecrated to his mission as Saviour. The ceremony of baptism was then taken over by the Church to signify the start of each person's discipleship of Christ, entry into the believing community, and incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ.
To begin Mass we acknowledge the times when we have failed to live up to our baptismal commitments. We ask God to forgive us and to strengthen our faith in him.
One of the things this gospel passage shows is that the ceremony of Baptism didn't start out as a Christian ritual. It was a religious ceremony with a pre-history and very early on in the Church's existence the Christian community took it over and given a specifically Christian meaning.
In Jesus' own time there was a group of men who were living a form of monastic life, and this group used a form of baptism as an initiation ritual for the community's new members. On top of that there was the way that Jesus' cousin John used a ritual of baptism in his ministry, as a symbol of repentance and renewed dedication to God.
So we might wonder first of all why Jesus - who had nothing to repent - felt he had to go down to the river Jordan along with the rest of the people who were responding to John's preaching and turning over a new leaf in their lives.
There are two reasons, I think, why he did. The first, the broadest and most obvious reason, was that he chose to make a gesture of solidarity with all the other people who were answering John's summons. Christ did with his baptism what he did with the whole of his ministry: he placed himself especially alongside the people who admitted their frailty, their sinfulness, their lack of self-sufficiency, their need to receive forgiveness and salvation from God.
This was a gesture which at the same time placed himself in opposition to the people who were too proud to admit those things and looked condescendingly on John's ministry - the scribes and pharisees who stayed on the bank of the Jordan because they didn't feel John's warnings and appeals applied to them.
But the second reason why Jesus received John's baptism was that at this point - just before the start of his own public ministry - he felt himself to be in need of the Father's endorsement, or sponsorship, to carry out his mission.
Christ was placing himself at the Father's service and pledging his allegiance. And the words which Saint Mark attributes to the Father represents God as accepting Jesus' pledge: "You are my Son, the Beloved. My favour rests on you". God makes it clear that he's behind Jesus' mission, and he gives him his sponsorship in this rather dramatic public declaration.
After his baptism, Jesus went into the desert for a long time of prayer and preparation for what he was about to do. You get the impression that even if he didn't have a totally clear picture of what his mission would entail at the outset, he did have a burning sense that he was being called to carry out God's will in some particular way, and these events at the start - being baptised and then spending that time in the wilderness fasting and praying - were the ways that he formalised his commitment by a ritual gesture or ceremony.
That's what most ceremonies are for: they put a seal on some commitment, decision or declaration, usually in the form of a ritual carried out in the presence of others, who act as witnesses. That was the significance of Jesus' baptism - or part of the significance, anyway. So what about ours - our sacrament of Christian baptism?
In the New Testament the starting point for baptism - and for all the other sacraments, in fact - is always the fact that without God's intervention and involvement, we wouldn't be freed or rescued from the effects of sin. It's Jesus' death and resurrection that make it possible for us to be liberated from sin, not our own efforts.
No doubt in the past there was a tendency to put too much emphasis on human sinfulness. The psychology of many ordinary Christians was guilt-ridden and joyless.
But the truth is, just the same, that people who awaken to the demands of our spiritual nature, don't try to deny that they're weak and sinful. In some ways they become more aware of it. But what they also become aware of is the fact that God never abandons us. He always gives his grace to undo the effects of our sinfulness and bring us closer to him. God's will to save is the source of Christian hope, not our own capabilities.
That's the significance of our sacrament of baptism. We stand in need of being born again, as we say in the baptism ceremony, and Christian baptism brings that about. We stand at the beginning of our journey towards God - we're not there already - and baptism is that beginning. And we still need, as we say in the baptismal promises, to reject the devil and all his works and all his empty promises. If none of that were actually necessary, it would be pointless to conduct the rite of baptism in the first place.
Having said that, it does appear that many church members today don't see the significance of baptism as clearly as many of our Christian forebears.
That tendency is even more noticeable now during baptism ceremonies themselves. For many families who still come to have their child baptised it's become a private event for their own family, not an event in which the child is seen as joining the larger family of the Church.
And that's a pity. Because again, the sacrament of baptism from the very beginning always had that significance of the individual joining the community of salvation, the Church, and at its best that should mean being received into the protective atmosphere of a family, where the new Christian is supported and helped in keeping to the promises that were made during the ceremony.
That aspect of being received into a protective and supportive environment is lost, of course, when the parents of a child aren't interested in the larger meaning of the ceremony and are only interested in its private meaning for them.
Let me finish with a story somebody told me about their own child's baptism - in one of the other churches, as it happened. The father of the child wasn't a believing Christian in any real way, and the minister came to see the parents with the order of service and the words of the ceremony, and they went through it together, crossing out all the bits the father didn't like or felt he didn't agree with.
To tailor the content of the rite to individual inclinations, especially of professed non-believers, makes a nonsense of baptism as it has always been understood by the Church community.
Outside of the framework of Christian belief and the life of Christian discipleship, Christian symbols, gestures and rituals don't make any sense, and to celebrate sacraments in accordance with some purely personalised sense of their significance empties them of their real meaning.
It could be argued that this applies above all to baptism as the ritual of entrance into Christian life. Maybe in our present circumstances there are so many confused and faulty notions about what Christian belief entails in general that we need to exert ourselves to recover and restore the authentic meaning of the sacrament.
In any case, those would be my main reflections on today's feast. Jesus himself stood alongside those who admitted their need for salvation and their need to be reconciled with God when he went along to be baptised. He didn't dispute the meaning John the Baptist assigned to the ritual he was performing. Those should be our attitudes in approaching baptism in our own, Christian, context.