Homily: The Baptism of Christ, Turning Points

Today we celebrate the wonderful Baptism of Jesus. We might begin our reflection by listening to this Sunday’s first reading, the Old Testament text from the prophet Isaiah, and hearing it as a poetic suggestion of what is to come in Jesus Christ. The prophet reminds us that God is faithful to God’s promises, and that how we live and order our world matters to God. It matters so much to God that God will send One who will ‘fix’ the mess we’ve made, transforming it into a time of beauty and grace, healing and justice.

The same themes consistently appear in both Isaiah and Matthew: righteousness experienced as compassionate justice and care for those who are poor and marginalized, humility and faithfulness that always point to God as the One who is at work in this transformation, and the hope – better, the promise – of new things that will dazzle us and rattle the foundations of our safe little worlds.

And, finally we hear the writings of the Gospels, that tell us that this savior from God has come. Three chapters into Matthew’s Gospel, we finally get to hear Jesus speak. After many years of silence, it seems, from God, Jesus now comes onto the scene with a paradoxical blend of magnificence and humility.

We get to eavesdrop on the conversation of these two men, Jesus and John, and John at least is

already used to speaking to the crowd, accustomed to speaking “large.” But the words he exchanges with Jesus sound quiet, perhaps worried, perhaps awed. Let’s listen to them in the words of the Message Bible:

Jesus then appeared, arriving at the Jordan River from Galilee. He wanted John to baptize him. John objected “I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you!”

But Jesus insisted. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this Baptism.” So John did it. The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God Spirit – it looked like a dove – descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”

This Baptismal scene, rather than pretty or nice, is full of power and questions, and perhaps even struggle. Magnificence and humility, yes, but full of trouble and beauty, as well.

The baptism of Jesus reveals the purpose of Jesus: to lay his healing hands upon a broken, alienated world, to make it right with God again.

This story reminds us of our humanness, our embodiment as creatures of God. Perhaps the mud and the water and the sounds and sights of a reading like this one draw us back to reflection on the Incarnation itself, the heart of the Christmas seasons.

The wonder of God taking on human flesh ought to inspire awe, a state that we rarely allow ourselves anymore, although we do seem to seek it, consciously or unconsciously, in one experience or another. Like John, however, we may have mixed feelings about this God-becoming-human mystery. Our initial relief at this good news moves into a struggle with the complicated maybe embarrassing work of using our bodies – our hands, our bodies, and our voices. And yet, it shows us the close connection between baptism and “the reality of being human” – because that’s exactly what the Incarnation is about.

Like ancient Christians, we struggle with the relationship between the physical and the spiritual, and how God could possibly have entered into our embodied existence. We put the spirit above the body, as if we are somehow split in two, and our task then is to minimize and subjugate the pesky body and its frailties and needs, its temptations and demands. And yet we are physical beings, who long to become fully and completely human – and to be renewed as well. It seems that we need to accept our bodies as good. Isn’t that what Genesis says it is about, when it tells us how all God made was “very good”?

When have you experienced the hand of God leading you? How have you experienced the Spirit of God within you, at what times and in what circumstances? What difference did it make in your life?

‘ Remembering our baptism’ is seeking equilibrium on a storm-tossed sea, getting our bearings, remembering who (and whose) we are, and grounding ourselves in that assurance. God’s Spirit works in us today, moves through us today, speaks to us still today, calling us in this time and place to do new things. Former things have passed away, or need to pass away, and new words of hope need to be spoken. And we need to ask: What is the transformation that needs to happen, or is happening beneath our gaze, in us, in our parish, in our world, even now? (Katheryn Matthews Huey)

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