Homilies - January 2009

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The Baptism of the Lord: January 10, 2009 by Fr. Boniface

The Baptism of the Lord

  • January 10, 2009
  • by Fr. Boniface
  • Isaiah 55:1-11
  • 1 John 5:1-9
  • Mark 1:7-11


The Manifestation of Christ in His Baptism

Last week, as I was looking at National Geographic Magazine I came across a picture showing a Romanian Orthodox priest throwing a wooden cross into a stream and a number of young men diving into the icy waters to retrieve it. It is thought that the one who retrieved the cross would be blessed with good health in the coming year. This ritual has more to do with Christ’s baptism than the visit of the Magi. The early church recognized four manifestations of God in which the Lord appeared to us in glory and divinity: 1) The Nativity 2) The Visit of the Magi 3) The Baptism of Christ, and 4) The Wedding Feast of Cana.

In the Eastern Church the important truth at this time of year is not that the Lord was born, but that he was manifested to human beings as the incarnate God. Consequently the great feast among our Eastern brothers and sisters is not Christmas, but Epiphany. On that day two manifestations are commemorated: Christ’s baptism and his birth. The most important event is the baptism, when God the Father publicly acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. In the mind of the Eastern Church, this was the beginning of his manifestation as Son of God and Redeemer of the world.

When the Western church began to observe Epiphany, Christmas had become so established that certain changes had to be made. Attention was given to the visit of the Magi, and the importance of Our Lord’s baptism was neglected. Now in the revised liturgy, the importance of the Lord’s baptism and manifestation has been restored albeit observed on the Sunday after Epiphany.

In the Eastern icons of the baptism, Christ is seen completely submerged in the waters of the Jordan so arranged that they form a tomb, foreshadowing his death and burial at the very moment of the inauguration of his ministry and manifestation to the world.

In our first reading water is seen as life giving. We will meet this reading again at the Easter Vigil. This use underlines the importance of this symbol as a sign of our salvation. Yet it is not water alone that will satisfy our thirst for God. The prophet Isaiah emphasizes that we are to come to the Lord “heedfully to listen, that you may have life.” It is the revealed word of God that alone satisfies us and on which we should meditate day and night. Throughout Scripture, the word of God is seen as creative and effective:”And God said…and so it came to be.” And so this first reading leads to the gospel account of Jesus’ baptism at which the word from heaven confirmed Jesus, the Word made flesh, as the Son of God.

Despite the fact that the symbol of water has been important in the history of salvation, and its use in the sacrament of rebirth, the tradition that it is also the place where evil lurks should not be forgotten. Water not only gives life; it also destroys. Anyone who has seen pictures of the recent floods in the state of Washington can see how a life-giving force such as water can be identified with the forces of chaos and evil. This double edged symbolism of water makes Jesus’ baptism in water itself a symbol of his victory over the forces of evil and sin.

Descending into the waters of baptism is an admission of guilt and sin and a plea for forgiveness in order to begin again. As they descended into the water, the candidates for John’s baptism would recount their sins publicly or privately. But what did the sinless Jesus do, and why would he even seek John’s Baptism? Luke tells us that Jesus was praying. As he descended into the waters of the Jordan, Jesus came face to face with the forces of evil and took upon himself our guilt. He began his public ministry by stepping into the place of sinners and anticipating the cross. And in response the voice that tore open the heavens “This is my beloved Son” became an anticipation of the Resurrection. It was by taking sin and death on to himself that Christ defeated the powers of darkness. Only love can do such things.

With this in mind, the relationship between Christ’s baptism and our own becomes clear. In our baptism we become incorporated into Christ, but it is only a beginning. By it we are inaugurated and committed to the work of redemption in ourselves and in the world. And we do this in the same way, the way of the cross. It is the only way to the fulfillment of the resurrection. By our baptism we commit ourselves to a way of life that requires us to live no longer for ourselves but for Christ who for our sake died and was raised. We can, of course, repudiate our baptism and live as though we had not been baptized, but we do this at our peril.

St. Paul talks about being baptized into the death of Christ, a death which, since it is associated with baptism, is thought of as a death by drowning. If you go completely under the water, you may not come up again. St. Paul means this not only as a threat but as an actuality. In this ongoing baptism there is to be a real death of the old sinful self, “the old man,” and a lifelong process of conforming ourselves more and more deeply to Christ. This process must go on daily in all the circumstances of our lives, so that as this sinful self dies with Christ it may be replaced by a self filled with God and raised up with Christ.

The image of the young men who dove into the icy stream to raise up the cross is an apt image for us as day by day we struggle to fulfill our commitment to Christ and our incorporation into his baptism.

Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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