The Catechism of the Catholic Church (537): Through Baptism the Christian is sacramentally assimilated to Jesus, who in His own baptism anticipates His death and resurrection. The Christian must enter into this mystery of self-abasement and repentance, go down into the water with Jesus in order to rise with Him, be reborn of water and the Spirit so as to become the Father’s beloved son in the Son and walk in newness of life.
Isaiah 42: 1-7
Acts 10: 34-38
Mark 1: 7-11
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In the verses just before our Gospel this weekend, it states John was teaching a baptism of repentance, and John was directing that teaching toward the Judean people. The Judeans were coming to John, admitting their sinfulness, and being baptized with the water in the Jordan River. There is a great deal of symbolism in this message.
There was a tradition of immersing in water Gentiles who were converting to Judaism, but the Jewish people themselves would have looked on this baptism as not being needed, they had available to them a means of penance by following the Judean laws. We hear, though, that the Judeans were coming to be baptized by John with his baptism of repentance. This speaks to the charismatic power of John the Baptist, but as the people are coming to John, he redirects them to the one who is yet to come, the one who is more powerful than he.
In his humility and recognition is Jesus for whom the people are truly longing, John states he is not worthy to loosen the thongs. Loosening thongs was thought to be among the lowliest of tasks, reserved mainly for Gentile slaves. And John then passionately states the one to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit. The Jewish people had heard of this coming of the Spirit from Isaiah, and now John is promising them that this time has come.
In verse 9, Mark notes that “It happened in those days…”, a particular reference to a period in time, a significant moment in history. In Jeremiah 31:33: “But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days—oracle of the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Jesus is then baptized by John in the Jordan River. Upon Jesus coming up out of the water, the heavens were torn open, the Spirit descended upon Jesus, and a voice “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” There are several references in the Old Testament to these words, notably today in our first reading in Isaiah 42: 1-2
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In Baptism, water, candles, a white garment and oil play a significant role. The oils of chrism and catechumens are used on the chest and the head, creating a permanence where the blessing of the oil becomes a part of the person being baptized. The water plays multiple roles, but in particular the grace of Baptism is achieved by immersion into the water or pouring water over the head of the Catechumen (the person seeking baptism) and stating “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. It is an incredibly powerful and beautiful moment.
The Rite of Baptism is intended to be a communal event, just as it was for John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Parents bring their child seeking the grace of Baptism, and they bring with them Godparents. In the Catholic Church, one Godparent must be Catholic because a part of the commitment of Baptism is a declaration of the Catechumen that they intend to take seriously the responsibility of carrying forth the mission of Jesus by living as priest, prophet and King.
We celebrate the Baptism of Jesus as one in the series of epiphanies: the first being the visit by the magi, the second being His baptism, and the third being the wedding at Cana. In each of these events, we come to a greater understanding that Jesus is priest, prophet and king. In our Catholic baptism, each of us was anointed and baptized as priest, prophet and king. Priest: to be the link between humanity and God through holiness and example; prophet, the one who will speak the words of God; and king, the one who helps lead others in using the talents given them to fulfill the will of God.
The Jordan River accounted for several miracles in the Old Testament, including Elijah, Elisha, Naaman, and Joshua. In each of these cases, there was a new beginning underway. A fresh start. A saving grace. The rising of Jesus from the water brought new life, the connection to the resurrection of Jesus rising from the tomb. A candle is lit from the Easter candle to signify the light of Christ leaving the tomb and making all things new. The white garment is placed on the Catechumen to signify the Catechumen has become a new person.
With the Rite of Baptism, we are forgiven our sins – original sins and all sins committed by the person; and all punishment for those sins. We become, as the Catechism describes in section 1265, “a new creature, an adopted son of God, who has become a partaker of the divine nature…” We become a member of the mystical body of Christ, which is the Church. When Jesus comes up out of the Jordan River and the Father declares “this is my Son…”, we have the declaration that as we become a member of the Church and therefore a member of the mystical body of Christ, we become heirs to a place in heaven.
Theme in Our Life
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The water plays multiple roles. Water is used for cleansing things, removing the stain of sin. Water also divides. Bodies of water are frequently used to separate geographically people into continents and countries and states and towns and tribes. Go west from here and as you cross the Mississippi you will be in Iowa. In the same way, in Baptism we become Christians, members of the Church and the mystical body of Christ, divided from those who are not Christian.
We are identified separately but that is a division of grace and not responsibility. In fact, the responsibility of the Christian becomes very clear and the standard high – we are to live our lives as Jesus instructed. We are to carry forth His mission to love God with every bit of our being, and love others. We are to live the Beatitudes.
At our baptism, either our parents and godparents declared for us, or we declared ourselves, that we would pursue learning and living our faith. In that very moment of baptism, as all of our sins are forgiven, we become a new being. How fantastically wonderful that moment is. How incredibly beautiful that moment is. The baby who has been baptized is so incredibly beautiful as a sinless child of God…and then we reach the age of reason and the sin comes into our lives. Ugh.
But alas! That is not the end of the story! Baptism is the beginning that leads us to the other Sacraments. We are unable to encounter Jesus so purely in the Eucharist only after we have been baptized. It is in the Sacraments, all of which are a gift given directly to us and established by Jesus, that we receive His grace once more, we become new again. Isn’t that great? The Sacrament of Reconciliation was given to us to take us back to that place where we were at Baptism by removing our sins.
Jesus came save us from sin, He had no sin Himself, so why did He go through the ritual of the baptism? Because it is exactly through His coming to us in the midst of our depravity of sin to show us that in Him there would be a new beginning. That new beginning comes in Baptism. The Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. All of the scum and dirt and pollution in the Jordan River empties into the cesspool that is the Dead Sea. It was in the midst of that sin that Jesus came to make clean the waters so dirty from sin. Jesus was not purified in the water, rather, the water was purified by the presence of Jesus.
Just as we would get physically sick from not eating for 10 years, we get spiritually sick from the sins that have piled up on our souls, eating away at our psyche, disturbing relationships and making a mess of our decision making. Our spirituality needs to be fed every bit as much as our body needs to be fed, and it is the Sacraments that we are fed.
Preparing for Sunday
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Consider the following:
Become a priest – invite someone to come to Mass with you