Saturday, January 11, 2014

Stepping into the place of Christ


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 the flight into Egypt and 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 and it welcomes us into the Church; into the family of God.  Jesus doesn’t need this; He doesn’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, the best response to that perplexing question I have ever seen came from Pope Emeritus Benedict in his book, Jesus of Nazareth. It is a wonderful book and one in which the former Holy Father addresses this issue of the reason for Jesus’ baptism. Here’s a bit of what the Pope Emeritus 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?”

Pope Benedict 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 shows us the reality that the road to Calvary didn’t begin at the feet of Pilate, it began here, in the waters of the Jordan.  It is in the waters of the Jordan that Jesus steps into the place of sinners, into our place.  It is here that He takes the weight of our sins upon His shoulders and He will carry them through all of the moments of His public ministry – through the preaching on the hillside, through the healings of the blind, the deaf and the lame, through the multiplication of loaves and fishes, through the raising of others from the dead, all the way to the Last Supper, and yes, from those moments before Pilate and in the incredible moments when they lay the wood of the Cross on His shoulders.

But, it was on that day, in the waters of the Jordan, that 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 the Jordan River, Jesus identified Himself with us in our sinfulness so that in the waters of our baptism, we might be identified with Him in His holiness. 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.  And we step into the place of Christ whenever we extend the same kind of love, kindness, joy, forgiveness, and compassion to those around us – especially in those places where that love is not expected.  Everytime we are peacemakers, we step into the place of Christ in our world; every time we reach out to the homeless, the hungry, those in need, we step into the place of Christ; every time we engage in simple, loving acts of kindness in our world, we step into the place of Christ.

And the more we step into His place, the more likely we are to hear the Father say of us as He said of His Son, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

May God give you peace.

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