CALLED TO BE ACTIVE PARTICIPANTS
As a priest while administering the sacrament of baptism to groups of infants, I have often noted with much curiosity the variety of infant-reaction to the ceremony of the baptism itself. There are basically three types of behavior as infants react to, the priest, the water, the oil, the white cloth, the light, and the crowd itself that is around during the celebration of the sacrament of baptism:
· There are the sharp-eyed infants, who watch every movement with keen curiosity. They are like the spectators at the tennis court, moving their head towards every stimulus. They are generally quiet but active. When the parents and god-parents are presented with the candle, for instance, these infants would also try to reach out and insist on holding it themselves, only to be cautiously prevented by the adults around. It is delightful to have such infants around.
· Then, there are the noise-makers. Restless, crying, troublesome! When the cold water touches their head during baptism they scream! When their parents are presented with the lit-candle they shove it away. They test the patience of the priest who is often trying to administer the baptism in a hurry after his long Eucharistic celebration prior to it.
· And, there are the sleepers. They have no idea of what is going on. Perhaps they are well fed, and comfortably cuddled by the god /grandmother. When they are baptized with the cold water they sort of shiver a little, but do not even bother to open their eyes. They are harmless, but no fun having too many of them around.
I am not trying to make a value judgement on infant reaction – it might say nothing about how they will behave as grown up Christians. But for sure, these reactions are so true of adult Christians: you and I. We can be active participants, or negative criticizers, or we could be just cold and indifferent.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. With this feast we conclude the Christmastide. What could this feast mean for us? To answer this question, first we need to ask ourselves another question: what did this event mean for Jesus Himself?
Why was Jesus Baptized?
This event recalls the end of the infancy and adolescence of Jesus, and marks the beginning of his public ministry. The event of the baptism of the Lord is very intriguing. All the three synoptic Gospels mention the baptism of the Lord (Lk 3:21-22; Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11). However, there is a problem: we are told that the baptism offered by John the Baptist was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:3). John began with the message: “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is close at hand” (Mt 3:2). And Matthew adds: “and as [the people] were baptized by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins” (Mt 3:6). If Jesus was without sin (1Jn 3:5) why did He go to John to be baptized?
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke have their own way of dealing with this problem with their additions. (Mark being the earliest Gospel, so characteristically would ‘call a spade a spade’!) The Evangelist Luke very smartly avoids this problem. He has John the Baptist put in prison (Lk 3:19-20) before Jesus could be baptized (Lk 3:21-22).
In any case, there are three common elements that are attested to by the synoptic Gospels in their narrative of the Baptism of Jesus: heaven opened, Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove, and a voice was heard (Lk 3:22; Mt 3:16-17; Mk 1:10-11). Perhaps a look at these three elements would help us to understand – at least in a limited way – what this event would have meant for Jesus.
· Heaven opened: Prophet Isaiah laments, “Oh God of Israel, you are a God who lies hidden” (Is 45:15). And the Psalmist prays, “It is your face O Lord that I seek, hide not your face from me” (Ps 27:8b,9). Elsewhere, again Prophet Isaiah cries out: “Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down” (Is 63:19). And Psalmist again: “Lord God, part the heavens and come down, touch the mountains” (Ps 144:5). But suddenly there is a surprise in the history of salvation. The heavens open, and God is made visible in the person of Jesus. So, perhaps for Jesus himself this was important. He understands Himself as the fulfilment of the prayer of Israel.
· The Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove. Like the dove that brought the message of hope to Noah (Gen 8 ) after the flood, when Jesus comes out of the water the Holy Spirit in the form of dove brings a message of hope to humanity. Jesus is being anointed as king, priest and prophet. Jesus perhaps begins to understand Himself as the Messiah – the anointed one! As Peter declares in our 2nd reading of today: “God had anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and because God was with him, Jesus went about doing good…” (Acts 10:38).
· And then the voice: “You are my son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you” (LK 3:22). It is important to note that this sentence is addressed to Jesus in the 2nd person (in Mk and Lk, but in Mt it will in the 3rd person: “This is my son!”). Jesus is addressed as the 2nd Adam. Jesus is addressed as the new David. But above all, for Jesus, God is the ‘Abba’ Himself! And the prophesy of Isaiah (42:1), that we heard read in the first reading of today comes true: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights. I have sent my spirit upon him….”
The journey has begun for Jesus. The journey of being not just the Messiah but the Son! The journey that will take him through three years of active ministry of preaching and healing, and that will culminate at the Cross and Resurrection.
What does our own Baptism mean to us?
We were also baptized, some of us as infants. If we were baptized as infants then we should be grateful to our parents who gifted us with the faith that they received. They evangelized us. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that we received the Sacrament of Confirmation after we reached the age of reason. We had at least some say in that, I suppose. That is how our Baptism got confirmed. Thus our journey began: the Christian life journey. In this journey, like the infants that I referred to in the beginning of my reflection, we can also behave in three ways: We can be just campers. We think we have reached, so we pitch our tents and live in our own little world. Or, we could be grumblers, just focused on negativity. But I think God invites us to be choosers, active participants.
It is interesting to note that according to Luke, His Abba-experience happened when Jesus was actually praying after the baptism (v.21). It could be the same for us. Our God experience could get deepened every time we make a choice to be available to God. This does not mean that temptations are not there. Let us not forget that the Gospels also speak about the temptations of Jesus occurring soon after his baptism. Temptations are moments of discernment. Through the sacrament of Baptism we are reminded that God’s Grace – His free help – is always available to us. It is up to us to gratefully accept his gratuitous gift.
And finally, just as his baptism was a confirmation that Jesus was the Son of God, and that God was actually present in his person, our own baptism reminds us that we are children of God, and God is with us. By our baptism we are given the privilege of being part of the believing community. This community, the church, accompanies us in our own journey through our crosses to our own Resurrection. And we are invited to support each other in this journey.
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.