Sunday, January 9, 2011

Stepping into the place of sinners

John Smith was the only unbaptized person in a large Catholic neighborhood. On the first Friday of Lent John was outside grilling a big juicy steak on the grill. Meanwhile all the neighbors were eating cold tuna fish for supper. This went on each Friday in Lent. On the last Friday of Lent the neighborhood men got together and decided that something had to be done about John, he was tempting them to eat meat each Friday of Lent, and they couldn’t take it anymore. They decided to try and convert John to Catholicism and it worked. John decided to join all his neighbors and become a Catholic, which made everyone happy. They took him to church for baptism and the priest sprinkled water over him and said, “You were born a pagan, you were raised a pagan and now you are a Catholic.” The men were relieved; their biggest Lenten temptation was removed. The next year, Lent rolled around again and on the first Friday at supper time, just as everyone had settled down to their tuna fish the men could not believe their noses – they could smell that steak on the grill again. They rushed to John’s yard hoping he had forgotten it was Lent. As they arrived, there was John standing over his grill sprinkling some water and saying, “You were born a cow, you were raised a cow but now you are a fish.”

With today’s solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, we bring to an end our Christmas season. We have spent the last few weeks reflecting upon Jesus’ private life – from His birth through last week’s visit of the Magi. Today’s celebration marks the beginning of His public ministry, a sort of passing of the torch, to Him from John the Baptist as He seeks out baptism in the Jordan.

Even though we hear such beautiful words in today’s Gospel, the voice of God Himself from Heaven proclaiming, “You are my beloved Son,” it begs a very curious question – why is Jesus being baptized? Have you ever stopped to think about this? Baptism, as we know, is for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus didn’t need baptism. We know this. He was untouched by sin – He is “like us in all things, but sin.” You and I, born in a state of Original Sin, are born in desperate need of this sacrament of grace. We need these saving waters to wash over us and restore in us what was taken away by Adam and Eve. But, Jesus? Why would He need baptism?

This is a perplexing theological question and there are many decent answers. But, I came across the best response I have heard a few years ago when the Holy Father, Pope Benedict, released his book, Jesus of Nazareth. It is a wonderful book and one in which the Holy Father addresses this issue of the reason for Jesus’ baptism. Here’s a bit of what the Pope says about the question of Jesus baptism.

First, the problem. He writes, “The real novelty is the fact that he - Jesus - wants to be baptized, that he blends into the gray mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan. We have just heard that the confession of sins is a component of Baptism. Baptism itself was a confession of sins and the attempt to put off an old, failed life and to receive a new one. Is that something Jesus could do? How could he confess sins? How could he separate himself from his previous life in order to start a new one?”

The Pope notes that Jesus doesn’t require the newness of life that we all need because of our sin. So, if the baptism of Jesus isn’t about His own sin, since He has none, who’s sin is it about? Of course, it is about our sin. Again, the Pope writes, “The act of descending into the waters of this Baptism implies a confession of guilt and a plea for forgiveness in order to make a new beginning. In a world marked by sin, then, this Yes to the entire will of God also expresses solidarity with men [and women], who have incurred guilt but yearn for righteousness…Looking at the events in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all [humanity’s] guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross…The Baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity, and the voice that calls out ‘This is my beloved Son’ over the baptismal waters is an anticipatory reference to the Resurrection.”

So, as Jesus begins His public ministry – a ministry that will take Him to the Cross, the grave and to resurrection all for us – He does so by taking on our sins. It is not on the Cross that Jesus takes on the sins of humanity – it is there that He frees us from them. It is in the waters of the Jordan that Jesus steps into the place of sinners, into our place. In the Jordan, Jesus united Himself with us; and in our own personal baptism, we are united again with Him – so that we can be forgiven, we can be healed, we can be saved. Again, the Pope writes, “To accept the invitation to be baptized now means to go to the place of Jesus' Baptism. It is to go where he identifies himself with us and to receive there our identification with him. The point where he anticipates death has now become the point where we anticipate rising again with him. The Baptism that Jesus' disciples have been administering since he spoke those words is an entrance into the Master's own Baptism… That is the way to become a Christian.”

And so baptism is a branding of sort; it is an identification, an initiation, a welcoming. In Jesus’ baptism and in our own, we have been united, one with the other; welcomed into the Family of God as a brother or sister of Christ. When we are baptized, the priest or deacon says these words, “You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ.” In the Jordan, Jesus was clothed in us, taking our sins onto Himself so that He could redeem us on the Cross. In the baptismal fonts of our Churches, we are clothed in Him – in the hopes that we will live lives worthy of the call; worthy of the name we bear – sons and daughters of God.
In the Jordan, Jesus stepped into our place. Today, through the grace of our own baptism, He asks us to do the same. We must now be the ones to step into the place of Christ and be His presence in our world, so that the Father may say of us as He said of Him, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

May God give you peace.

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