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Baptism is a lifelong commitment

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Gospel Commentary Lk 3:15-16, 21-22

 

The baptism of Jesus is the final feast day of the Christmas season, but it seems out of place. It makes sense to include the feast of Epiphany within the Christmas season, or to place the feast of the Holy Family in the Christmas season, but the Baptism of Jesus takes place a solid 30 years later. And why on earth is Jesus being baptized in the first place? Some feast days are easy to understand, and this is not one of them.

Let’s begin by recognizing that Jesus does not receive the sacrament of Baptism. Jesus’ baptism is something entirely different. Since about the first century BC, there has been a Jewish ceremony of cleansing and repentance called Mikveh, consisting of an immersion in water (the word “baptism” derives from a Greek term that simply means “immersion”) for the purpose of ritual purity and cleansing from sin. Historically speaking, this was the baptism of St. John the Baptist that we read in the Gospels.

Why would Jesus do this? Someone once asked Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “Mother, when you're no longer with us, where will we look to see the face of Jesus?” She answered, “You will see him at the crib, and you will see him at the cross.” The crib and the cross are the two places Jesus identifies with us. At the crib, God takes our human nature. At the cross, he takes our sins. Now at his Baptism, Jesus publicly identifies himself with sinners, as Isaiah once prophesied the messiah would do. (Is 53:12)

St. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus “in bodily form, like a dove.” We’re accustomed to imaging the Holy Spirit as a dove, but the Baptism of Jesus is the only place in the Bible in which the Holy Spirit is described as such. Why does the Holy Spirit appear as a dove? Because a dove was a sin offering. In the Jerusalem temple, the sin offering for the high priest was a bull; for those of modest income, a goat; but the sin offering for the poor was a dove. Any first-century Jew would have understood the connection: Jesus himself will be an offering for the forgiveness of sin.

If you think Christmas is just the story of a baby in a manger, you're missing most of the point. Christmas is about the Incarnation of the invisible God into human flesh, whose purpose in this world was to redeem us from sin. Christmas is about “Emmanuel,” God with us.

The popular Catholic author Peter Kreeft once wrote a short story that compared Christmas to D-Day. It was the story of two soldiers, Gabby and Mike, discussing secret invasion plans to reclaim enemy occupied territory. As the story unfolds, we realize that “Gabby and Mike” are actually the archangels Gabriel and Michael, that “enemy occupied territory” is our poor, suffering world, occupied by the power of sin and evil. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God snuck unseen behind enemy lines in a covert operation to reclaim the creation that is rightfully his own. Christmas is God's D-Day.

Each of us is a soldier in that fight. In his Baptism, Christ identifies with us as sinners, but that identification is a two-way street. In the sacrament of Baptism, you received the gift of Christ’s own divinity. Your challenge now is to identify with him, in the heart of the secular world. The Baptism of Christ is a good day to ask: do you live like it? Baptism has never been just a cute rite of passage for a baby. It is a lifelong commitment to live as a Christian.

On Sunday, the Christmas season draws to a close. On Monday, Ordinary Time begins anew. Our commitment to Christ remains the same. Let Christ live in you, so that he will be Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Fr. Hudgins is pastor of St. Jude Church in Fredericksburg.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019