Sunday, January 13, 2008

Baptism of the Lord

(Feast of the Baptism of the Lord; I did not preach this weekend, so I would like to post this homily from the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord that was given back in 2005, at my first assignment at Our Lady of Mercy in East Greenwich; See Matthew 3:13-17)

Imagine Tiger Woods asking you for some help improving his golf swing, or Donald Trump asking you for financial advice. That must have been how John the Baptist felt when Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized.

Think about it. People from all over Judea were coming to John to repent of their sins. Suddenly the Son of God steps into the water. John’s reaction is one we can all understand. He tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Nonetheless, Jesus insists; but why? Why does the Son of God—who is without sin—need to be baptized?

We could look to the Christian Sacrament of Baptism, which teaches us how the one being baptized receives new life in the Holy Spirit…But Christ is already one with the Holy Spirit; in fact, He can never be separated from the Holy Spirit. There can be only one reason why Jesus is baptized and why He receives the Holy Spirit. It’s the same reason He took on human nature to begin with.

St. Cyril of Alexandria says He receives the Holy Spirit in His human nature, not for His own advantage, but for ours. He says Christ “receives it to renew our nature in its entirety and to make it whole again, for in becoming man he took our entire nature to himself.”

And so, it is for our sake that Jesus is baptized in the Jordan by John. It is for us that He comes to identify Himself with sinners whom He will eventually die for. It is for us that the Holy Spirit descends upon Christ in the form of a dove, as the heavens are opened and the Father declares:

This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.
—Matthew 3:17

When Christ takes our human nature and cleanses it in the waters of the Jordan, he begins the Father’s will to renew all of humanity, and in a certain sense he prepares each of us for our own baptism. Each one of us, in baptism, is cleansed of original sin, and the Holy Spirit comes upon us, and the Father claims us as His own. In a certain sense, He says to each of us:

"This is my beloved son,"
or "This is my beloved daughter," "in whom I am well pleased."

But this renewal and new life that begins at baptism is not something that happens without our cooperation. We need to be open to the gift of life which God gives us in Jesus, and willing to respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit all throughout our lives. It is an ongoing process.

You might remember that in the late 1970s, in El Salvador, there was constant terror and turmoil as a corrupt military dictatorship frequently sent out death squads to punish anyone who opposed it. At that time Archbishop Oscar Romero was appointed to lead the archdiocese, and as far as the government was concerned, he was the perfect man for the job: He was a shy, timid man who kept his mouth shut.

Within a few short weeks of his appointment, though, everything changed. A very close friend of his, a Jesuit priest named Fr. Rutilio, was shot and killed by one of the death squads. It is said that when his body was brought before Oscar Romero, the archbishop wept uncontrollably, and remained that way all night as he prayed by the coffin of his friend.

The following Sunday, Romero cancelled every Mass in the archdiocese except for the one which he would say, a memorial service in the cathedral. More than 100,000 people attended the Mass, and one eyewitness described Romero as sweating, pale and nervous.

He said, “It was as if the archbishop was reluctant to go through the door of history that God was opening up for him.” But after a few minutes, the same witness said, “Suddenly, I felt as if the Holy Spirit had descended upon him.”

The archbishop then demanded an investigation into the killing. El Salvador’s military government was furious. And for the next three years, until he too was killed by the death squads, Romero broadcasted weekly homilies throughout the country, assuring the people that the Church was with them in their suffering.

Now baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit may not lead us to sacrifice our lives in the same way Archbishop Romero did, but we, too, are called to an openness to the Holy Spirit, to be led by the Spirit, and to be moved outside of ourselves.

Because we will never be truly happy in this life until we learn how to give of ourselves. We are only fulfilled when we learn how to give ourselves away, and it is the Holy Spirit who teaches us to do that. The Holy Spirit moves us and guides our lives—if we will let Him—so that we can begin to live more completely, more joyfully, that call we received at our own baptism.

So often people are waiting for some person or event that will change their lives and help them to find true meaning and purpose. But what if that event has already happened on the day of our baptism? What if that person we are waiting for is Jesus Christ, Whose very own we became at our baptism?

This weekend we ask for the grace to recognize that we have received new life from Christ in the sacrament of baptism. We have gone down into the waters with Him; we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit and heard the voice of the Father saying, "This is my beloved son," or "this is my beloved daughter," "in whom I am well pleased."

Let us be open to this gift today, open to the direction the Holy Spirit is leading us in, and learn how to give ourselves more completely to Christ, who has given Himself completely to us.