Sunday Sermon for January 13, 2013, the Baptism of the Lord, Year C
Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Lk 3:15-16, 21-22
In the Gospel reading today we are told that it was a time of expectation and people were wondering if St. John the Baptist might be the Christ. The people knew the timing set forth by the Prophet Daniel and they thought it was the time for the coming of the Messiah. Because John preached a baptism of repentance the people saw that he was turning their hearts away from sin and toward God. This is what one who comes in the spirit of Elijah is supposed to do, but the people did not have that insight. John clarified the situation by stating that there was another coming after him.
St. John the Baptist was firmly rooted in the Covenant God made with the people of Israel, indeed, he was its last Prophet. At the same time he was the first Prophet of the New Covenant and heralded its arrival. The Covenant, as we see in the first reading is a person; we can understand that it is the Person of Jesus Christ. The Covenant was ratified on the Cross. Jesus was first baptized with the baptism of repentance preached by St. John the Baptist. This is, in part, because repentance must come before the forgiveness of sins. The shedding of the Blood of Jesus on the Cross brings for us that forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
Our Lord did not need to repent of anything, so the baptism was not due to any need on His part. Rather, He accepted this baptism to mark the beginning of His ministry and also to show the way to those who would be incorporated into the New Covenant. As the Head, He leads the way for the members of His Body and He would not ask anything of us that He was unwilling to do Himself.
Our Lord’s ministry was to begin where the ministry of St. John the Baptist ended. The Baptist prepared the people and brought them to repentance. Our Lord could now come and build upon this foundation of repentance and bring the people to reconciliation and union with God. This reconciliation came about at the moment the New Covenant was established, but the work that led up to that moment began with our Lord’s Baptism.
One might still wonder why He had to be baptized if there was no sin for which He needed to repent. There are several ways of looking at this. The most common explanation is that in His baptism He made the waters holy for the rest of us. We can also understand that the whole of the Mystical Body needed to be baptized so that Head and members would be united through a like baptism. In the context of today’s considerations, we can also say that there needed to be a means of incorporating the members of the Mystical Body into the Covenant.
The Covenant was established on the Cross, but it would be very impractical to think that each person who would be incorporated into the Covenant would need to be crucified. As participants in the Covenant we will all have to be crucified spiritually, but a physical crucifixion for each person would be unacceptable. Beyond this, since we are baptized into the death and resurrection of the Lord, the Cross alone would not suffice as a means of bringing us into the fullness of the Covenant.
For this reason our Lord accepted baptism to show us the way to share in the salvation He won for us. He began with John’s baptism, expanded it and brought it to fulfillment in the Paschal Mystery; now we enter into the Paschal Mystery by being baptized. John’s baptism was to call the people of the Old Covenant back to God through repentance. Baptism into the New Covenant is open to “whoever fears Him and acts uprightly” in any nation. The first turns the hearts of the people to God; the second incorporates us into Jesus Christ and makes us partakers of the divine nature. The first brings repentance; the second brings reconciliation.
There is an essential connection between our Lord’s baptism and His Passion. For us, there is an essential connection between the Lord’s Passion and our baptism. Baptism marked the beginning of our Lord’s saving work which was consummated in His death and resurrection. Our salvation begins with our baptism and ends with our death and resurrection.
Our Lord’s baptism revealed Him to the Baptist as the Son of God and pointed beyond itself to the work of redemption which would be accomplished on the Cross. Even now, baptism is not an end in itself, but leads us into the Person of Jesus, into the mystery of our redemption and, finally, into eternal life promised by and embodied in Jesus Christ, the New Covenant.
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.