Sunday, January 13, 2013

Following Jesus in Baptism

Sunday: 13 January, 2013 –– The Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 40:5, 9–11 / Titus 2:11–14; 3:4–7 / Luke 3:15–16, 21–22
Following Jesus in Baptism

Catholic identity is grounded in Baptism. I have found that many Catholics do not have a good understanding of what the Sacrament of Baptism means (especially its personal and practical implications), but they know it’s important and young Catholic parents want their children baptized. 

Some seem to think Baptism is a free ticket to heaven. It’s as if it’s the corollary to the Evangelical question: Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Savior? What does Baptism mean for our salvation?

On this Sunday the Church celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ. It's an event that is recorded in all four gospels, so we know it's important. But there's a question that has puzzled Christians all down through the ages: Why was Jesus baptized?

Baptism does not have a strong Old Testament context. John’s baptism of repentance was a bridge. There is the inherent message that we need to be cleansed.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, baptismal grace means forgiveness of original sin and all personal sins, and birth into the new life by which a person becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit and incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ....  [CCC 1279].

Jesus didn't need any of those things! So, why was he baptized?

The whole life of Jesus is ultimately a mystery. Christian Faith confesses Jesus Christ as fully God and fully Man, but how the two inter-relate has been the basis of two major heresies and remains a mystery. It does seem that at his baptism, the man Jesus entered more fully into his identity and embraced his mission.

We can be sure of one thing: the baptism of Jesus is part of his mission, and his mission is clearly stated in the Scriptures: The angel told Joseph: he will save his people from their sins (Mtt 1:21).

How does Jesus save us? The Scriptures give more answers than I can include here. Today’s epistle reading is an extended treatise on salvation. More succinct verses tell us:

[God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Cor 5:21).

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses (Eph 1:7).

....all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death (Rom 6:3)
This last verse from St Paul’s fullest teaching on salvation gives an explicit connection with a Christian’s baptism, which is meant to portray dying to sin and rising to new life. But again, why did Jesus himself need to be baptized?

Here is the “heart” of what I want you to grasp: To save us, Jesus goes ahead of us and gives us a path to follow. Particularly, in his death he was taking upon himself our death. In his resurrection Jesus destroyed the power of death. When we follow Jesus, we too die to sin and thus have the hope of resurrection to eternal life.

This is the way we understand Baptism.  To take our sins upon himself and die our death, Jesus submitted to baptism to take the initial step of identifying with sinners so he could take the path to the cross to be our Savior. It was one more way the Son of God humbled himself to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

Hear what the Church says in the Catechism: “Baptism is the first and chief sacrament of forgiveness of sins because it unites us with Christ, who died for our sins and rose for our justification, so that we too might walk in newness of life” (CCC #977). Jesus became like us in every way but sin so that we could become like him. Baptism is the first step in the process of becoming a saint! This is the highest calling in the world.

It is important to know, however, that Baptism is not an end in itself; it is the “gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (CCC #1214, emphasis added).  Unfortunately, not all baptized people live up to their baptism –– “the grace of Baptism delivers no one from all the weakness of nature” (CCC #978). But here is the issue for us on this day that we honor the baptism of the Lord: Am I living out of my Baptism?  

Being baptized into Jesus Christ is our highest calling. Nothing is greater than being identified with Jesus Christ. The implications are eternal.

As I progressed in my journey into the Church –– as I began to understood more of the tangible things that mark Catholic life –– I was pulled into the power of the Sacraments. I began to think more about my own Baptism (which, until then, had merely been some almost forgotten event in my past history). When I came to understand that entering the church and making the sign of the cross with holy water was a recall of my Baptism, I really started to take notice.

I want to challenge you to do something I have done ever since I learned this lesson. I use that simple gesture to consciously renew my Baptism. I try to enter the church early enough not to be hurried, so that I can focus on what I am doing, and then as I dip my finger into the water, I offer a prayer that goes something like this:  I belong to you, my Lord. I give myself to you fresh and new. Let the power of your baptismal waters again make me clean and totally yours. In your grace, never let me make this a mindless, mechanical gesture.

Jesus Christ gave his life for your salvation. He suffered death for you. He rose from the dead for you. And he initiated it by being baptized for you. Christian Baptism marks who we are.

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