Sacrament of Baptism
Door to the Church and Gateway to Salvation
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, January 11, 2009
By Fr. Alex McAllister SDS (BaptismB)
Today with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord we come to the end of the Christmas season. We end Christmas as we began Advent with the figure of John the Baptist.
At the beginning of Advent he was presented as the figure foretold in Isaiah come to “prepare the way for the Lord.” Today we see the fulfilment of his mission in the Baptism of Jesus and the inauguration of Christ’s public ministry.
The sacred liturgy cannot follow the various events in the life of Christ in chronological order since we celebrate them all within the space of a single year. What the Church does is place these events in relationship with each other so that the various mysteries that we celebrate compliment each other.
That’s why we have the accounts of the ministry of John the Baptist in Advent, then we celebrate Christmas, Epiphany and now the Baptism of Jesus. They are not in chronological order but in a sequence which illustrates their meaning and significance. What we are doing is not considering them chronologically but theologically.
Christ’s Birth was celebrated two weeks ago and in between we have had two feasts which were directly complimentary to it: the Feast of Mary the Mother of God in which we clarified our understanding that this child was our Saviour, Son of God and Son of Mary; then in the Feast of the Epiphany we saw how he was not destined merely for the people of Israel but for the people of the entire world.
In today’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord we see our Saviour begin his ministry with the blessing and affirmation of God himself: “You are my beloved Son, my favour rests on you.”
And at this apposite moment we are introduced to the Sacrament of Baptism, the door to the Church and the gateway to salvation.
Christ doesn’t need to be Baptised, but by undergoing Baptism at the hands of John he transforms it into the great sacrament of salvation. Just like everything else he touches it is transformed. He makes it not just a Baptism of repentance for sins but a Baptism for the forgiveness of sins and the entrance to the Life of the Spirit.
Jesus receives Baptism from John as a sign that he is sorry for the sins of all mankind and an expression of his decision that he would save us through his death on the Cross. This is a bold statement made right at the very beginning of his ministry and it indicates clearly the direction in which he is going.
Of course, this was not evident to any one present except John the Baptist; it is something that only becomes clear in retrospect. But it is clear that John the Baptist gets the message because as is recorded in the Gospel of John the following day he points out Jesus to his disciples and says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
He knows who Jesus is and he knows what Jesus is to achieve; he might not be fully aware of the details or how it is going to be worked out, but he knows God has a plan for the salvation of the world and Jesus is going to be the one who is to fulfil the promises God has made down through the ages.
We have, each of us, been Baptised; our task now is to live out the implications of our Baptism. Being Baptised means being a Child of God, being Baptised means living a new kind of life, being Baptised means that we are now Witnesses to Christ.
Because most of us were Baptised as children we have completely forgotten the experience of Baptism. However, we might have been present recently at the Baptism of a child and we were reminded us how the priest poured water on our heads in the name of the Trinity and how we were anointed with holy oil and consecrated to Christ’s service.
We know that Baptism is the sacrament of our initiation into the Church and that through it we became members of Christ’s body. It is a simple ritual but it has extraordinary implications.
I mentioned that this feast falls at the very end of the Christmas season. But it is also regarded as the first Sunday of Ordinary Time. It acts like a sort of bridge between Christmas and Ordinary Time.
As we have noted, and it is especially evident in the Gospel of Mark, the Baptism of Christ marks the beginning of what we call his public ministry. In Ordinary Time we go systematically through the Gospel and consider the important events of this ministry. We look at the various miracles in turn and we examine Christ’s teaching, especially as found in the Sermon on the Mount.
We should take all this seriously; if we are to be his witnesses to the world of today then we need to know all about Christ—what he did and what he taught. That means we need to study his life and there is no better way of doing this than by following the Gospel readings as presented to us by the Church through the Liturgical Year.
As we celebrate this feast today we are invited to remember and take ownership of our own Baptism. We will renew our faith using the question and answer format as was done at the time of our Baptism and I will sprinkle you with Holy Water in blessing as a further reminder of Baptism.
As we do these things let us give thanks to God for the gift of faith and for all that we have received as members of his Church. Let us ask him to come into our lives afresh and fill us with his Holy Spirit. And let us resolve to live our lives in this New Year as his faithful disciples.