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Baptism of the Lord
Baptism As An Expedition
Baptism is, sadly, thought of by many as a one-off event. Whereas, in fact, Baptism is ‘the gateway to life in the Holy Spirit and the door which gives access to the other Sacraments’. (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) Chapter 1 1213) The Baptism of a child is the unique launchpad for that child’s lifelong Sacramental programme of accompaniment and support to a mature, fully-fledged, lifelong communion with the Body of Christ on earth, the Church.
The key figures, in the Baptism of a child, are parents. They give the essential and irreplaceable Baptismal accompaniment and support day in, day out. Giving this Baptismal accompaniment to their Baptised siblings also enables parents, en route, to recalibrate, as it were, their own Sacramental formation. Often the language they remember describing Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion will have developed just as ‘The Penny Catechism’ has been replaced by the CCC. While essential truths remain unchanged and unchangeable, the way in which that truth is expressed may be quite different. Parents find the vocabulary provided by their memory no longer corresponds with the vocabulary their siblings bring home from their Catholic school or parochial catechetical classes.
So, while it is true that parents are the first teachers of their children, it is equally true that their children will lead the parents in an essential updating of their religious beliefs. Nowhere could this have been more dramatically experienced than in the household of the Holy Family. Mary and Joseph would have shared all the history of their Jewish heritage with Jesus, backed up by the local synagogue instruction for all young Jews. For his part, Jesus would have continued to introduce his mother and foster-father to wholly new experiences of the Divine that had begun with the Annunciation. So, while they walked with him through his infancy and childhood, he ‘walked with them’ through their initiation into Christianity though, at the time, they would not have known it as such.
‘The Baptism of the Lord’, today’s Feast, is liturgically pigeonholed into a single event. It gives us little insight to the background through which Jesus had made his way to John the Baptiser at the Jordan. For Jesus his baptism marked a milestone in his transition from childhood, through youth, to young man and finally adulthood. Previously, he had lived a private life. Henceforth, he would live a very public, if short, life. Jesus would have prepared his mother for this milestone (presuming his foster-father Joseph to have died by this time).
Jesus, now in his late twenties, presented himself to his cousin, John the Baptiser, in the river Jordan along with many fellow Jews each coming for the ‘baptism of repentance’. Jesus, being without sin, had nothing of which to repent. In fact, his was a Baptism in reverse. For the other Jews, their ‘baptism of repentance’ was divestment from their previous sins. For Jesus, ‘baptism’ marked his willingness to take upon himself the accumulative sin not only of his fellow Jews but of all humanity, past, present and future. Jesus was being Baptised into his unique vocation to be the Saviour of the World.
Little wonder then that John the Baptiser was hesitant and in need of Jesus’ encouragement: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.” Then John consented.” (Matt. 3:13-17)
All John’s hesitation would have been instantaneously alleviated by the Divine manifestation that came upon Jesus as he rose from the water. Mark’s Gospel extract for today’s feast (1:7-11) gives us the bare bones of that stupendous event. Jesus had freely chosen to acquiesce in his heavenly Father’s will. That acquiescence consequently allowed God the Father to confirm His Only Begotten Son’s unique vocation. Little wonder then that John’s Gospel (3:30) recalls John the Baptiser’s later statement: “He (Jesus) must become greater; I must become less.
The Annunciation had brought a Baptismal-type experience to Mary. A Baptismal experience, rather than a Baptism, because Mary, being without sin, has no need of Baptism. Mary accepts God the Father’s invitation to a unique expression of communion with Him by becoming the mother of Jesus, his Only-Begotten Son, God-made-Man. Traditional Catholic belief holds that Mary had previously chosen to forego the prospect of motherhood wishing to give God her whole life. This is a major decision for any woman but especially for a Jewess as Jews believe that the Messiah will be born of a Jewess. Jewish women, therefore, willingly embrace motherhood. Beginning at the annunciation Mary embarked on the long process of theological adjustment through which she came to appreciate how, with God, all things are possible. ‘Baptismal’ grace flowed into Mary initiating, within her, the Incarnation of God. A ‘Baptismal’ like process that would be revealed to her and Joseph in the milestones of her Divine Son’s journey for Life. It may be helpful to re-read Luke 1:40-45 paying to particular attention to Mary’s answer to Gabriel: ‘You see before you the Lord’s servant, let it be done to me as you have said.”
Jesus accompanied his mother to her ‘Confirmation’ – her complete acknowledgement of being adopted by God - through her dialogue with her cousin, Elizabeth, and the interaction between Jesus, in Mary’s womb, and John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb - Luke 1:40-45.
The lifelong aspect of their commitment came to Mary, and her husband Joseph, when they presented the eight-day old Jesus to God at the Temple. As Mary and Joseph brought Jesus in, Simeon and Anna identified him:
Jesus’ foster-father and mother marvelled at what Simeon said about him. Simeon’s prayer, the ‘Nunc Dimittis’, forms part of the daily Night Prayer of the Church.
“Then Simeon blessed them (Joseph and Mary) and said to Mary, his mother:
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Many a parent knows both the joy and the pain of parenting as, for example, when Baptised siblings walk away from a life of faith. In Mary’s case that sword was soon to arrive at the threats to her Infant’s life that caused the family to flee to Egypt.
Mary’s on-going adjustment in understanding and accepting her role as Mother of the Messiah - her and Joseph’s ‘Baptismal’ journey – continued until Jesus reached the age of twelve. We know it as ‘The Finding of Jesus in the Temple’. Luke (2:41-50) tells us the story. Jesus’ twelfth birthday marked his coming of age – his bar mitzvah. He was now regarded as an adult. When his family and companions left Jerusalem for Nazareth, Jesus, unknown to Mary and Joseph, remained in the Temple.
After a three-day search, Joseph and Mary finally found him in The Temple dialoguing with the elders and teachers who were amazed at his wisdom.
“When Mary and Joseph saw Jesus, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? We have been anxiously searching for you.”
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Did you not know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he was saying to them.”
(Luke 2:48-50) Luke adds (2:51) that Jesus returned to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph and “lived under their authority”.
For sure, Mary and Joseph (were Joseph still alive at the time) would have been well prepared by Jesus for his pending decision to have cousin John the Baptiser (Luke 3: 21-22) commission his public life and mission with all the world-reshaping consequences that were to flow from it over those next few years.
However many years may have passed since your Baptism, perhaps you might like to consider reflecting on the rolling programme that, with hindsight, marks out your own Baptismal pilgrimage? And perhaps reflect, if memory allows, how your parents accompanied you.