The Baptism of the Lord

Today’s readings

Let’s reflect on two things today: the violence and the voice.

First, the violence.  Back on the first Sunday of Advent we read from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  That particular reading was focusing on how bad things had become.  People were cheating one another, especially the poor and the powerless.  Corruption was just kind of accepted as the way things were.  Worst of all, people had become rather callous or indifferent to it all; they were jaded and just accepted that bad was the new good.  I was thinking that the things Isaiah lamented could well be lamented in our own day.  The poor seem to get poorer, and more powerless, especially today as companies fail through the greed of a few, affecting the livelihood of thousands.  Corruption in our government has led to scandal in the highest office in our state.  And worst of all, we’re not surprised by any of it any more.

On that first day of Advent, Isaiah wrapped up his lament of all that nonsense with the frightening words: “Would that you would rend the heavens and come down.”  It’s a pretty violent prayer that he’s praying.  Isaiah is acknowledging that very little is going to attract our attention any more, so the best God can do is to violently tear open the heavens, a kind of barrier between God and us, if you will, and come down.  Only by God’s walking among us and being one of us can things ever be made right.  We need that kind of violent act of God because nothing else has worked.  The flood didn’t work, the wandering in the desert didn’t work, the captivity in Babylon didn’t work.  Maybe those things worked for a while, but we fickle humans soon forgot the lessons we learned in those momentous events.  To get our attention and keep it, something truly earth-shattering, or rather heaven-shattering, had to happen.

Today we celebrate that that’s exactly what happened.  We gather here today on the last day of the Christmas season, during our continued celebration of Epiphany that began last Sunday.  Epiphany means “manifestation:” we celebrate that God appeared among us, was made manifest among us, became one of us.  Last week’s epiphany was the three magi coming to meet the Christ child with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  They worshipped the child who would be king, would be our priest, and would die for our sins.  Today’s epiphany finds Jesus to be an adult, approaching the rivers of the Jordan for baptism.  As he enters those waters of baptism, he isn’t really changed or made holier by those waters.  No, he makes the waters holy by entering them himself.  Through this act, all of the waters of baptism, including the ones that bathed you and me, have been made holy.  And most importantly, that violent act that redeemed us happened: coming up out of the waters, the heavens were torn open – those are the words Mark uses here – “torn open.”  The barrier between God and humanity is sundered now, God has entered human history once again and in a decisive and heaven-shattering event.

Second, the voice.  The voice in our Gospel story continues the epiphany, that voice comes from those heavens which have been torn open.  First, the Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove, and then the voice roars out of those open heavens: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  For that brief moment, we see the entire Holy Trinity together at one moment.  We have Jesus coming up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descending upon him, and the Father’s voice roaring out of the heavens.  The epiphany is complete: God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are made manifest at the waters of the Jordan.  God has valued his creation of humanity so much that he appears among us in force, in the completeness of the Trinity, with all of the love that that Holy Trinity gives to us.

Significant here is what the voice says in that moment.  “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  In saying that, the Father confirms the manifestation of his Son in  the world, gives him a Father’s blessing, and empowers his work of redemption.  The words are words of mission – being the Son means that he represents the Father in every act and word.  Now I don’t know about you, but I didn’t hear any voices at my baptism.  At least I don’t think so; I was a baby.

But probably even those who were baptized as adults don’t remember any kind of extra special voice.  But the thing about baptism, is that we’ve all heard that voice at numerous times since, haven’t we?  Whenever we were faced with choices: the easy way out or the way of integrity; the truth or a lie; an opportunity to help someone, or move on; an effort to correct a wrong or turn a blind eye – didn’t we hear an interior voice reminding us who we are by our baptism?  “You are my beloved child with you I am well pleased.”  Didn’t we pray for guidance to make the right choices and strength to follow through on our decisions?

At those decisive and testing moments did we turn to God for help?  Because the violence and the voice should be strong enough hints about God’s love for us to do that.  Or have we ignored the violence and the voice, turned instead toward more selfish motives, and become just as jaded as those Israelites who needed Isaiah to pray that God would rend the heavens and come down?

Jesus’ baptism today is a decisive event.  It meant mission for him: God had the special act of human redemption to accomplish in the person of Jesus.  It meant authority for him: as God’s Son he had the authority of the Father to accomplish what desperately needed to be.  Our own baptisms mean mission and authority too.  We are given a mission of some kind – something specific God wants us to accomplish.  And we have the authority to do that mission by being called sons and daughters of God.  In our own baptism God says to us too: “You are my beloved Son – You are my beloved daughter, and with you I am well pleased.”  The rite of baptism says that explicitly.  After the act of baptism by water, the priest or deacon says, “They are now called children of God.”

And so, on this feast of the Baptism of the Lord, this Epiphany day, this last day of the Christmas season, we celebrate vocation – the realization that every one of us has a mission as the result of our baptism.  We know that every person has a vocation. Every person is called on by God to do something specific with their life that will bring not only them, but also others around them, to salvation. Parents help to bring their children to salvation by raising them in the faith. Teachers help bring students to salvation by educating them and helping them to develop their God-given talents. Business people bring others to salvation by living lives of integrity and witness to their faith by conducting business fairly and with justice and concern for the needy. The list goes on. Every vocation, every authentic vocation, calls the disciple to do what God created them for, and helps God to bring salvation to the whole world.

And so, to celebrate this week of Vocation Awareness, I invite you to do three things.  First, encourage people to embrace their God-given vocation.  Invite them to consider life as a priest or religious brother or sister.  Parents and grandparents are especially important in helping children know that a religious vocation is a viable option for them.  But everyone can encourage someone they know to embrace the vocation God has given them, whatever that vocation may be.  Second, I invite you to pray for vocations.  Pray for more men to accept the call to priesthood and men and women to accept the call to the religious life.  Pray for those preparing for their vocations: priests and religious in formation, and couples preparing for marriage.  Pray for the faithful living of all holy vocations in the world as a way to build up the kingdom of God.  And third, live your own vocation – whatever it may be – well.  When we do that, we’ll never have to worry about a priest or religious shortage, because if we all live our vocations faithfully and in holiness, then that witness will provide vocations of every kind to build up the Church.

It’s all about the violence, and the voice.  God cared enough for us to rip open those heavens and come down.  And he continues to speak to all of us through our baptisms: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well-pleased.”