Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7; Like 3:15-16, 21-22
The Sacrament of Baptism is one of my favorites at which to preside, and it’s one that probably stirs me the most emotionally, even more than weddings, at which I also love to preside. I think part of my love for the Sacrament of Baptism is the sheer gratuitousness, the sheer generosity of it—that God uses these material things to simply wipe our slate clean, to cleanse us from the stain of original sin, and to adopt us as His own children; that He bestows this life saving grace on us in such a simple, mundane act—the act of bathing.
I suspect some of the parents of children I’ve baptized also find it a bit unbelievable. A few have even called me up and said, “Deacon Bill, I don’t think the baptism took. This child is just off her rocker.”
And I always tell them the same thing. I say, “Look, the baptismal water didn’t sizzle and evaporate when I poured it on her head, so I’m sure it’s all good.”
Last week, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. The scriptural context of our celebration was the visit of the Magi to the house of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph some time after Jesus was born. But the feast itself represents something greater: the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. The shepherds who visited the Christ child on Christmas day represented the am ha-arez—the people of the land. These were the unschooled Jews of the time, most likely considered unrighteous by the teachers, scribes, and religious authorities.
Those two events together represent the revelation of Christ to those who are traditionally outsiders to the righteous Jews. Today’s celebration is the baptism of the Lord—the revelation of Jesus to everyone. At one time in our liturgical calendar the Feasts of the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord were celebrated on the same day. The feast day commemorated not two but four events, and their order of importance was different than we would expect: first, the Baptism of the Lord—today’s celebration; then Jesus’ miracle at the wedding of Cana, which was the first of His miracles; then the nativity of Jesus; and finally, the visitation of the Magi.
So this feast day is important in the life of the Church primarily because it celebrates Christ revealed to the whole world. With His baptism, with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Him, and with the Father’s words, the final revelation has become manifest in the world. His Incarnation was, very literally, a turning point in history.
I was cooking in the kitchen this last Friday evening, and as I usually do, I plugged my iPhone into our little kitchen stereo and put on Pandora so I can cook and sing and maybe play a little air guitar. And a Matt Maher song came on—I know a lot of you like Matt Maher—this one was Turn Around—which is pretty much the story of my life, and the story that many of us have. A line from the chorus is this: “If you’re looking for a savior, all you gotta do is turn around.”
Turn around. Your savior is right behind you.
Now, it’s a catchy tune, but Maher is a very clever songwriter. He’s actually playing on a Greek theological term we use: metanoia. It’s used in the original Greek of the Gospels and the book of Acts in the call to conversion to which Jesus, St. John the Baptist, and all of the Apostles call us; and it’s frequently translated into English as repent. But the word itself means: change of mind, and in Latin, the same word is translated as coversionem—turning around. So our English word—conversion—means turn around.
That makes perfect sense, in context, because the Greek and Hebrew words for sin both suggest being pointed in the wrong direction. Our aim is wrong. We want a happy life, but we keep aiming at the wrong targets. The Gospel message—the one we get on this day when we celebrate Jesus’ revelation to ALL of us—is to turn around: turn away from sin and turn toward Him.
The people of Israel were looking for and longing for the Messiah, a savior. And they turned to many who matched their ideal of salvation: a military savior, a political savior, a material savior. And all of those people were pretenders, false targets, false prophets. But one came whom St. John the Baptist predicted, whom the prophet Isaiah predicted, whom Moses and David and the other prophets predicted. And in our Gospel reading, we see the Holy Spirit come down to rest on Him, and God the Father to claim Him as the one. John denied that He was the Christ, and when the time came, John himself pointed to His cousin Jesus and testified: there is the Lamb of God, the one whose sandal I am not fit to loosen.
If we’re looking for a savior—turn around. He is right there.
We celebrate today the one sacrament that all Christians recognize, although not all understand its significance. It’s the one that signifies our connection to the Church, the Body of Christ and to Christ Himself. When Jesus comes to John to be baptized, note that John in the Gospel of Matthew says, I should be baptized by you!” But Jesus is baptized so that all righteousness will be fulfilled. He’s obviously not baptized for His own salvation. He doesn’t need cleansing. But we do.
And Jesus’ directive to us, more simple than all of His other messages to us is this: follow me. Do what I do. It starts here at baptism. It leads us to share in a communal sacrifice. And it ultimately leads us all right there. He sacrificed Himself for us, and we are called to sacrifice as well. Our baptism is a call to that cross.
I know that sounds heavy at times, but have you noticed how those who have embraced their baptism most ardently; those who follow Jesus’ example day in and day out; those who bear up under unimaginable burdens for the sake of the Gospel all seem to have that unmistakable joy and aroma of holiness? They’re so holy that they smell of it! At times, their goodness and sanctity is overwhelming. That must’ve been what it was like to be in the presence of Jesus—to let His goodness wash over you and cleanse you, purge you, renew you.
That is the difference between the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus. John’s baptism was typical of many Jewish and far Eastern rites: a ritual and symbolic washing to represent a cleansing of impurity. But something changed when Jesus came into those waters. Many of the early Church Fathers taught that His baptism actually sanctified the waters of the earth for our baptism. St. Proclus, a bishop of Constantinople, described it this way:
Come, consider the new and wonderful deluge, greater and more important than the flood of Noah’s day. Then the water of the flood destroyed the human race, but now the water of baptism has recalled the dead to life by the power of the one who was baptized.
The baptism of Jesus is not simply symbolic: as a sacrament, and like all sacraments, it enacts what it represents.
- Baptism doesn’t symbolize cleansing; it actually cleanses.
- Reconciliation doesn’t just represent absolution, cover over our sins, and kick them off into a corner; it actually removes the stain of sin.
- The Eucharist doesn’t just symbolize Jesus’ salvific sacrifice: it engages us in the very same sacrifice.
These sacraments give us the grace we need to turn our hearts back. When our power fails, the grace of the sacraments renews us and returns us to friendship with God.
And the Gospel message is just that simple. If you’re looking for a savior, turn around. If seeking money and power has failed to satisfy you, turn around. If self indulgence and material excess has failed to quench your thirst or sate your hunger, turn around.
Be converted. Jesus didn’t need baptism to be saved, but we do if we are to truly follow him. And we need to be converted daily. You see, conversion is not something we do once and are done with. Our hearts must be converted daily. We have to turn back from so many distractions, so many worldly concerns, so many preoccupations. We have to reform ourselves every day for the rest of our lives. The process does not stop until that final step at the very last, when with God’s grace, we will look into His face and hear the words, “well done, my good and faithful servant.”