Feast of the Baptism of the Lord ~ January 13, 2013

Is 42:1-4,6-7; Ps 29:1-2,3-4,9-10; Acts 10:34-38; Lk 3:15-16, 21-22

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a fascinating feast.  What exactly are we celebrating?  Scripture scholars note that the baptism of Jesus was something of an embarrassment to the early Christian community.  In Matthew’s version of the event, he inserts a dialogue between Jesus and John to make clear that, despite appearances, John is the inferior of the two.  Daniel Harrington has suggested that Jesus’ baptism by John is one of the most certain historical facts in the Gospel tradition; it would be undesirable to invent a story that could be so easily misunderstood.  Not only might the episode make John appear greater than Jesus, it also would seem to suggest that Christ needed to repent of sins.  So why baptism at all for Jesus?

The answer seems to be identity and, even more, a public revelation of that identity.  In this week’s Gospel from Luke, the emphasis is not on the baptism itself and John is distanced from the scene as much as possible:  “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”  Instead of the baptism, the focus is on this interaction between heaven and earth through the person of Jesus.  In the following verse, Jesus’ identity is made explicit:  “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”  The verse deliberately echoes Psalm 2:7 (“I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.’”) and in so doing highlights the special role and place of the anointed one. 

The Baptism of the Lord is not a helpful prototype if we want to understand baptism as the cleansing of sin.  However, this Sunday’s feast is instructive if we consider the sacrament as a public avowal of identity.  Indeed, these three aspects – public/vow/identity – tell us something critical about the moral undertaking of discipleship.

First, we are reminded that identity is not something possessed by an individual; rather, identity exists by virtue of our relationships.  Thus, the voice from heaven speaks of Jesus in relationship; he is the Son of God.  Second, given our social nature, these relationships are far-ranging and not all under our direct control.  This is the public aspect.  In Luke’s Gospel, crowds look on as Jesus is baptized and stand as witnesses to the descending of the Holy Spirit and the voice from heaven.  Our Christian baptism – our identity – is actualized in the midst of a community of faith.  The relationships that foster our identity as disciples are largely relationships given to us, not chosen by us.  An attempt to live out our baptism in the privacy of our own home within the privacy of our own circle of friends and family cannot be authentic.  Third and finally, the vow aspect suggests the permanence of the identity at stake.  We are not committed to a mere set of activities that, in the future, we may or may not opt to do.  Rather, we are committed to a way a being that is integral to our very personhood.

Baptism is actually a stunning possibility in a world full of options to erase and cancel what we have done.  The memories of our prized electronic devices can be wiped out.  Tattoos on our bodies can be removed.  Even the public vows of marriage can be terminated through divorce.  Yet, the claim on our identity through baptism remains.  A recent article on the pursuit of “de-baptism” acknowledges the obstacles.  Jeannine Marino of the USCCB is quoted saying: “People can stop participating in the Church, but we believe the grace of the sacrament has marked them forever.”

No doubt we are free to choose how to respond to our baptism, but this Sunday’s feast reminds us is that it is just that – a response.  We are claimed first by a relationship to God, lived out in relationships with those we have not chosen.