Sunday Sermon for January 12, 2020, the Baptism of the Lord, Year A
Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Mt 3:13-17
In the second reading today St. Peter is in the home of the Gentile, Cornelius, to whom an angel had appeared. Peter was also instructed by the Lord to go to the home of Cornelius. After grasping the situation, St. Peter says “You know the word God sent to the Israelites…what has happened all over Judea…” He goes on to specify the beginning point as the “baptism John preached” then speaks of the anointing of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.
St. Peter is beside himself trying to explain what is happening. Never had he stepped foot in the home of someone who was not Jewish; never had he thought the Gentiles would be recipients of God’s grace. When Peter talks about “what has happened all over Judea,” one can sense his head spinning because everything had been thrown into chaos. Of course, the chaos Peter may have felt was due to a failure to understand the will of God. Peter and the other Apostles were being led by the Holy Spirit to do what was causing them to think in ways they had never considered.
It all began, as Peter told Cornelius, with the baptism administered by St. John the Baptist. As we celebrate today the Baptism of our Lord, we recognize that Jesus’ Baptism caused a radical change in the order of the world. The work the Baptist had undertaken to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah had fulfilled its purpose. Despite the protests of the Baptist, Our Lord entered into the Jordan River to be baptized. The reception of this baptism was not a mere endorsement of the work St. John had been doing; it marked the formal beginning of our Lord’s public ministry. By receiving this baptism Jesus completed and fulfilled what the Baptist had begun.
The repentance St. John preached needed to result in a change in peoples’ lives. Repentance was essential, but if the people returned to their sins, what good was the repentance? If the baptism of individuals required a change in their behaviors, what would the baptism of our Lord, Who came to save the world, require? Obviously, there was no need of personal repentance on His part, so as the Creator of the world, His baptism was going to affect all of creation. Since human persons are the only creatures who had the freedom to choose to change, the baptism of Jesus was going to require a choice that would affect all of humanity.
One can look at the Israelites and their attitude toward others, but in so many ways this same disposition can be found in any culture throughout the world. People think they are better than others, people look down on others, people treat others as objects, etc. Our Lord’s baptism throws all of our misconceptions, which cause chaos, into right order. His baptism begins the work of a new creation wherein everything is to be conformed to the intention of the Creator.
We are baptized into the covenant described in the first reading, that is, we are baptized into the Person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we need to conform our thoughts and behaviors to His. Isaiah says that He shall bring forth justice to the Gentiles, He will not be shouting or crying out, He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick. When St. John the Baptist objected to our Lord’s request for baptism, Jesus told him it was necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.” Righteousness is the Greek equivalent of what is translated into Latin as “justice.” Isaiah tells us the Messiah, Who is the covenant, will establish justice on the earth.
We have not yet seen that justice or righteousness established universally, but we have seen it in many individuals who have lived holy and righteous lives. The Saints were conformed to our Lord in their thoughts and actions. They recognized their own dignity and the dignity of all human persons, especially the lowliest and most rejected. They did not look down on others or think themselves better than others; instead, they saw each person as a beloved son or daughter of God.
St. Peter said that whoever fears the Lord and acts uprightly is acceptable to God. This is where each of us needs to begin. Justice, or righteousness, cannot be established universally until it is first established in our hearts and minds and lived out in our lives. In Baptism, we have been anointed with the Holy Spirit and power to live our faith as God’s beloved sons and daughters. We too have been called for the victory of justice and to be a light for the nations. This is our (Baptismal) dignity as the beloved children of God (and members of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ)!
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.