The celebration of the Baptism of the Lord wraps us, liturgically speaking, the fuller celebration of the Christmas Season. In fact, I like to see the entire Advent and Christmas journey as a celebration of the “feast of the Incarnation” – in which we anticipate the great mystery of the birth of Christ and then explore prayerfully and in worship what it really means that God became one of us. So, it is right that we close this experience out with the observance of Christ’s baptism – even if it is not an event of His infancy or childhood.
The 5th-century theologian, St. Maximus of Turin, has this to say about our celebration today:
Reason demands that this feast of the Lord’s baptism, which I think could be called the feast of his birthday, should follow soon after the Lord’s birthday, during the same season, even though many years intervened between the two events. At Christmas he was born a man; today he is reborn sacramentally. Then he was born from the Virgin; today he is born in mystery. When he was born a man, his mother Mary held him close to her heart; when he is born in mystery, God the Father embraces him with his voice when he says: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased: listen to him. The mother caresses the tender baby on her lap; the Father serves his Son by his loving testimony. The mother holds the child for the Magi to adore; the Father reveals that his Son is to be worshiped by all the nations.
That interplay between Christ’s human mother, Mary, and the divine Father can help us more fully appreciate what we are celebrating – and have been celebrating for the past month. And this mystery is not just some theological exercise for us; we are included in this mystery!
When we celebrate our baptisms, we are not repeating Christ’s experience that we commemorate today. Christian baptism is not a repeating of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. Rather, when we are baptized, we are being included in the experience of Easter – of death and resurrection – of eternal life won for us by Jesus, who became man and lived, suffered, died, and rose again for us. However, that would not have been able to be effective for us unless Jesus had fully identified with us. This is what the Incarnation is all about, and it is why Jesus has come to the Jordan to be baptized. St. Luke states it clearly and simply: all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized.
Jesus is the hinge upon which our entire life and salvation turns. He stands at the pivot-point between human destruction and the salvation that God has graciously given us. From Mary, Jesus receives His humanity; through her He identifies with us. He is born in time and enters our history. Now, Mary has let go of her child and the Man Jesus is embarking on His mission of reconciliation and salvation. At this point, the Father speaks: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” In that moment, God definitively reveals Jesus to be the One whose mission will bring about the fulfilment of all the promises of the Old Testament, and the fullness of the Kingdom. We are united to the mission because we share a human nature with Christ, and we are united to that mission because through our baptism we are joined to the eternal destiny that the Father has created us for.
Friends, this is why Jesus is so important! He is more than just a “great teacher” or a “wisdom figure” from some great tradition. Certainly, the way of life that He teaches and the example that He sets are lights to our path; but He is the center of it all. Jesus is the reason, not only for a season, but for all our lives. The imitation of Christ is more than jumping through hoops to get to heaven; it is a real participation in the divine life that He has given, and which is only possible because God became Man, just like you and me.
Because of the Incarnation, Jesus can take hold of us – He can touch us – and bring us into His life. This is absolutely revolutionary from a cosmic faith perspective: the fact that the Creator of the Universe, God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, could become like you and me in order to simply touch us …. This is remarkable humility – the greatest humility – divine humility. And Jesus shows that humility today, as He steps into the waters of the Jordan with all those sinners; He is with them.
This same humility is made present to us each time we come here and celebrate the Eucharist. Jesus, the Son of God – the One in whom the Father is well pleased – gives us Himself in the simplest of forms: a piece of bread a sip of wine. The Body and Blood of Jesus are real and truly present to us today and every day because of the humility of God. Jesus is that humility, and because of this humility we are saved.
The celebration of the Baptism of the Lord is not a simple “blip” on our liturgical calendar – a boundary between Christmas and Ordinary Time. Rather, it is the boundary between being infinitely distant from God and being able to hold His hand. The Incarnation makes that possible. It is a mystery, yes; but it is a mystery that we are blessed to live. Because of the Incarnation we can be united in the Resurrection with the God who loves us so much more than we know.