Sunday, January 13, 2019

Jan. 13, 2019: Baptism of the Lord

Jan. 13, 2019: Baptism of the Lord C

It is estimated that 3 billion gallons of water flow every year from the Sea of Galilee, through River Jordan, and into the Dead Sea. Whereas the Sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake teeming with marine life and vegetation, the Dead Sea is extremely salty brine in which no creature survives and no vegetation grows. Connecting the two bodies of water is the River Jordan in which Jesus was baptized by his cousin John the Baptist. Even today hundreds of thousands pilgrims visit the River Jordan each year to pray and to renew their baptismal vows. 

Baptism site on Israeli side of Jordan River
(not the probably site of Jesus' baptism)
Several years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Jordan River. The site that pilgrims visit on the Israeli side, is not the official site of the baptism of Jesus, but is far easier to visit that the official site on Jordanian side. Across a short distance from the site, I saw horses relieving themselves. I imagined that when it rains, the runoff would enter into the river. On that day, there were hundreds of people plunging into the water to be baptized by their minister. I had to turn off my camera and turn away when people’s robes floated up, thus revealing their birthday suits. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand the desire to rent a white robe from the facility, plunge into the water in my birthday suit, and stand in the water teaming with catfish and what appeared to be nutria rats. 

What’s the attraction of the Jordan River for Christians? It’s the place where Jesus stood in line with the rest of the sinners and accepted John’s baptism as a prophetic sign of his own passion, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. Throughout the centuries, millions have come to the Jordan River to seek purification, to renew their faith, and draw closer to Our Lord. The River reminds the pilgrims how they have been washed in the waters of baptism and have become members of the divine family of Jesus. 

Site of Baptism on Jordanian side
(more likely site of Jesus' baptism)
From time to time, I encounter people puzzled by the need for baptism at all. From their perspective, even though they’re not baptized, they believe that they’re leading a good, decent life. They try to be conscientious and respect others. In their candor, they even say that they live a much more ethical life than some of the Christians they know. Some well meaning parents are even saying that they don’t want to impose upon their children baptism and instead give their children the freedom to choose their faith when they mature. How would you explain to such persons the necessity of baptism? 

We need to go back to the River Jordan where Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized. John the Baptist had been attracting great crowds of people into the desert area where the River Jordan flowed. There he called upon people to change their hearts, repent of their sins, and come back to God through baptism in the Jordan River. John called his baptism a baptism of repentance, but he knew that the Messiah who was to come was going to baptize not only with water but with Holy Spirit and fire--a radical transformation only possible by God. The moment of Jesus’ baptism by John revealed that Jesus is the beloved Son of the Father in whom all God’s grace and favor rest. Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations...A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, until he establishes justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for his teaching.”     

By being baptized by John, Jesus who is sinless chose to be with us where we are, to enter into solidarity with all sinners. He opened the door to a new life, a life that goes beyond our death and into the life of heaven after our death. St. Paul explained to the Romans, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3, 8, 11) Thus baptism is the sacrament of salvation, an encounter with God that cleanses us from sin and makes us true children of God, sharing in his own divine life. It’s a free and great gift from God. Baptism washes away the Original Sin that we all inherited from Adam and Eve. Baptism gives us the grace--spiritual strength--to follow Jesus through this world. 

Do we take the gift of baptism we received for granted? Pope Francis reminded us that the Sacrament of Baptism is the foundation of Christian life. “It is the door that permits Christ the Lord to make his dwelling in us and allows us to immerse ourselves in his mystery.” While some believe that there is no need to “baptize a child that does not understand” the meaning of the sacrament, Pope Francis said by not baptizing would deny the chance for “Christian virtues to grow within that child and blossom.” He said, "Always give this opportunity to all children: to have within themselves the Holy Spirit that will guide them in life. Do not forget to baptize your children.” 

With our own baptism, our vocation on earth is clear--to walk as sons and daughters of Heavenly Father, always aware of the living presence of Christ within us, relying on the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Can you be an ethical person without baptism? Can you be a good Hindu, Muslim, or even a person of no faith? Yes. But what’s missing? A relationship and life with Heavenly Father that would not be possible without baptism. For many of us, our parents and godparents made the profession of faith for us when we were baptized, to proclaim life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We reaffirm this faith for ourselves by our daily witness, obedience to the Father’s will, and sacrifice. It is our conviction that through baptism, the final resurrection from our physical death is a reality that awaits us.