The readings this Sunday are filled with examples of why this feast is so important to the season of Christmas. The lesson in the Gospel (Luke 3) is obvious since Jesus is proclaimed by the Father as the Son of God, the one for whom we waited so patiently (and maybe not so patiently) over the weeks prior to December 25. The Christmas season is about welcoming the newborn King into our world, but we also stepped back almost immediately to reflect upon the effects of His coming. We observed the joy of angels, shepherds, magi, and prophets. We also saw what greed and narcissism did to Herod who was threatened by the presence of a baby, and we ‘watched’ with horror when Mary and Joseph had to flee Herod's juvenile wrath. Much of what lies in the years after these events in Scripture is a mystery, but when Jesus appeared at the Jordan River to be baptized, the Father made it clear that the child at the manger who is now a man, is indeed the One for whom we waited. The waiting is over and Jesus’ ministry is ready to begin. All the lessons of the season up to this point are now activated to propel us outward into our lives with Jesus.
Then in the second reading (Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7) the author writes a stunning line: “When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior….” We are saved not because of our own merit, but because it is simply in the nature of God to love us this way. Like the people of Jerusalem mentioned in Isaiah, we do not deserve God’s forgiveness and we do not deserve the gift He gives us in Baptism. But He offers it to us anyway. The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord demonstrates to us what mercy is, and it is the same Jesus who came into the world at Christmas who personifies the unfathomable mercy of God.
When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River He was offering us the ultimate in the mercy of God: we, the undeserving, are invited into the mystery of God’s love in the same way that Jesus is. Jesus did not need baptism, rather He is baptism. Because of His mercy we are invited into His death and resurrection and are given the gifts of faith, hope and love, which are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. For us, these gifts are the foundation of how to live with mercy. And like Jesus, we are to share these gifts with those around us whether they deserve it or not.
The Christmas season fittingly culminates with a joyous lesson about what Jesus had come to offer His people. The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord reminds us of the great gift of God’s fulfilled promises in the coming of His Son. It teaches us to accept with gratitude the gifts we have been offered, especially the gift of God’s mercy. This feast also teaches us that it takes time and preparation to become ready, and that at some point we have to leave the security of the stable and venture out to the river. And it is a reminder that the gift of mercy we have been given, we are to give as a gift. Let us continue to rejoice with the angels who sing of God’s glory because we are given such incredible love and mercy through the coming of a baby who grew to reveal that He is the Messiah and Lord so that we might follow Him into Heaven. Let us have a joyous finish to our Christmas season as we gather at the Jordan with John the Baptist and Jesus.
©Michele L. Catanese
The first icon is a mosaic of The Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist which is in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Sicily. This chapel is magnificent in its iconography and this is one of many mosaics that depict biblical scenes.
Next is another version of the Baptism of Jesus. This one is by the medieval painter, Giotto, who is one of my favorite artists. I like the vivid colors and clarity of his work.
Next is an image painted by Fr. William Hart McNichols called I Hold Out My Hand and My Heart Will Be In It. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/i-hold-out-my-hand-and-my-heart-will-be-in-it-225-william-hart-mcnichols.html. This image speaks to me of the tender, boundless mercy of God.
Next is an icon, also by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Christ All Merciful. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/christ-all-merciful-022-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Finally, the last image is a photo I took while at Big Bend National Park in west Texas. This is the Rio Grande River in the sunshine on what was a glorious day. One could almost hear angels glorifying God (if one listened intently with all one's senses).