The mystery of our baptism:
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. Luke 3:21-22
On the first Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany we observe the Baptism of Jesus. The gospel lesson vividly brings us back to that moment when the Spirit in bodily form, like a dove, bears down upon Jesus. In that moment Jesus is praying, we are told, and his unique relationship to the Father is brought into full consciousness.
The Baptism of Jesus is one of the four days in the Church year – along with the Easter Vigil, the Day of Pentecost and All Saints – when the celebration of baptism and the renewal of our baptismal covenant is deemed particularly appropriate. On this feast we are given an invitation to ponder the deep meaning of our own baptism in relationship to Jesus’ baptism. His baptism set his ministry in motion; and, as we have been baptized into Christ, it sets our ministries in motion as well.
The invitation to reflect anew on the ministry we have each been given through baptism seems particularly timely, as we begin a new calendar year: a milestone that often calls forth from each of us thoughts about how we are living the lives that are no longer our own but have been taken up into the life of Christ.
So, looking again at Jesus’ baptism: we can see that as he emerges from the waters of the Jordan, Jesus experiences a deep and all-embracing oneness with God, and an overwhelming sense of being the beloved. The love which passes between Jesus and the Father in the Holy Spirit becomes the animating force of his life, and expresses itself in a self-giving ministry of reconciliation. This baptismal awareness is expressed with passionate urgency in his words and actions.
Jesus’ baptism was the experience of being encountered by love, which is a profoundly personal experience. However, love by its very nature must give itself away. Jesus’ baptism opened his heart to the world around him, and impelled him to move about teaching and preaching. God’s reign is embodied in the person of Jesus, who does the work of the Father in seeking to draw all to himself. Ultimately, it is this passionate desire to bring all things together and to break down all walls of division that drives him to the cross.
And what have our baptisms done to us? Through baptism we are bound together with others and declared limbs – body parts – of the risen Lord who lives his life of reconciling love in and through us. God’s love becomes embodied in us. Baptism, therefore, is God’s act before it is our own. God draws us to himself and takes us out of our presumed separateness into a new web of relationship that unites us with others beyond personal affinity. Questions of whether we like someone or not, whether we agree or not, are no longer relevant. Something far more fundamental has happened: God has knit us together in a body not of our own making, and Christ is the head and consciousness of this body.
The mystery of our baptism is that in Christ we have all been made irrevocably one – beyond all imagining or desire. And, strange as it may seem at times, our lives are ordered in Christ such that we are instruments of one another’s salvation. The very angularities and unsettling points of view of another may be exactly the way in which the risen Christ is seeking to deepen and broaden our experience of his truth. It is important to remember this when strains occur within the body and one limb begins to question whether another body part properly belongs.
This deep and demanding understanding of the mystery of our baptism is desperately needed in our highly polarized world. All about us we see that life is viewed in terms of absolutes which admit no modification. Rather than listening to the other with an undefended heart and a spirit of graced curiosity, people feel obliged to defend their points of view.
As well, within our own community of faith, we are being called to a radical encounter with Christ in one another which is not easy when "the other" holds views very different from our own. Here the gifts of patience and a willingness to go beyond our fears and opinions to allow Christ to accost us in strange and unfamiliar ways are very much needed. Only as we engage one another in this self-sacrificial way will we be able to encounter the fullness of the risen Christ.
This is not an easy season in the life of our church, and yet it is in precisely times such as these that a deeper, and more costly, understanding of what it means to be limbs and members of Christ’s body is literally pulled out of us by the very circumstances we are called to live as a community of faith.
May a renewed awareness and appropriation of who we are in Christ, in virtue of our baptism, ground and sustain us as we look ahead to the new year.