Father Donald Senior, CP

Jan. 9: The Baptism of the Lord

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Escape from baptism?

Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Ps 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10; Acts 10:34-38; Lk 3:15-16, 21-22

I read recently that some Italians sought to “de-baptize” themselves. As one commented, “Here in Italy, being baptized is an expected cultural practice, but it has no meaning for me now as adult. I am an atheist, not a Christian.” The same article reported that every time there is some sort of scandal connected with the Vatican, the number of those seeking “de-baptism” goes up.

I don’t know if the news story was timed for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, but it got me thinking about the meaning of baptism. The Gospel account for today is from the Gospel of Luke. In many ways, the “baptism” of Jesus is different from subsequent Christian baptism. For Jesus, this was the dramatic beginning of his public ministry. Like other Jews seeking a renewed life, Jesus had traveled from Nazareth to where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea. Here the prophet John the Baptist was calling on his contemporaries to undergo a ritual cleansing in the Jordan River, and, at a stressful time in Israel, to start life anew.

We can imagine that in the human consciousness of Jesus, he, too, was stirred by John’s appeal, and decided to begin the mission to which God had called him. He, too, plunged into the Jordan, the river Israel of old had crossed into a land of promise.

Our Christian baptism also is a “rite of initiation” — our public entry into the Christian community and our commitment to taking up the Christian mission to the world. For most of us, this happened when we were infants — and our parents and family and representatives of our parish community stood in for us and promised to nourish us in the faith, until the time we could reaffirm our Christian commitment on our own.

So, I suppose from one point of view, those who no longer consider themselves Christian are acting with a certain integrity in attempting to shed their baptismal identity. In this sense, baptism is considered something like a “membership card” — if you no longer want to belong to this organization or political party, you can tear up your card and end it.

But the Scriptures for today’s feast, and an authentic understanding of baptism, make it much more than a “rite of initiation” into an organization. For Jesus, too, that moment at the Jordan was not only a sign that his mission was to begin but was a “theophany” — the voice of God declaring that, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.”

In other words, the sacrament of baptism is not only our first step as Christians, but is a revelation of our total embrace by God’s love. At our baptisms too, God declares us “beloved”; we are “washed clean” like newborns and enveloped in God’s enduring love: “You are my beloved Son.”  “You are my beloved daughter.”

Thus, baptism is not simply about what we choose to do, but, at its heart, is something God chooses to do for us. This why the church declares that baptism endures even if we no longer find meaning in it. Surely, circumstances can lead people to drift away from their Christian faith, and, sometimes, the failings and scandals of the church itself can be the cause. But no amount of scandal or indifference will cause God’s love for us to cease.

The other Scripture readings for this Sunday also stress this theme. The prophet Isaiah portrays God’s tenderness and care for Israel: “I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations.” The refrain of the responsorial Psalm 29 declares, “The Lord will bless his people with peace.” And in the segment of his Pentecost sermon from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter tells the crowds that the “kindness and generous love of God” is lavished on us “not because of any righteous deeds we have done but because of God’s mercy.”

We might try to drift away from God, but God will not abandon us.



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