Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
As winter begins each year, the Church presents three great feasts to celebrate our salvation in Jesus and also to teach us the meaning of salvation in Jesus. Christmas was the first of these feasts. Then came the Epiphany of the Lord. This weekend is the third, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
Each of these feasts, through the Liturgy of the Word, introduces us to a vital dimension in the identity of Jesus and to important considerations for Christians as they seek to follow the Lord.
Supplying the first reading for this weekend is the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah writes about a loyal servant of God, a servant who is steadfast in his faithfulness despite enduring the hostilities of others around him and the unhappy twists of his fortune. This servant is therefore the most perfect servant. Regardless of the injustices surrounding him, and the temptation to forsake God, the servant never falters.
This reading is among four quite similar passages in Isaiah, called the “Songs of the Suffering Servant.” They form a major part not only of Scripture, but also of the liturgy as they are used during Holy Week when the faithful concentrate of the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary.
The second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, reveals what life was in the first generation of Christianity. It verifies that the structure of the Church at that time was essentially as it is today.
Peter is central. He appears before Cornelius, whose name indicates Roman origins. Peter preaches in the very name of Christ, discharging his responsibility as an Apostle, a responsibility given him by the Lord.
The reading is revealing because it shows that Peter announced salvation not just to Jews, whose heritage Peter shared, but also to pagans, indeed even to the brutal Romans whose military conquest and occupation of the Holy Land had resulted in so much misery, death and despair among Jews.
Peter’s preaching leads to one conclusion: Salvation is in Jesus alone. Jesus came as God’s representative. In God’s love, Jesus went about “doing good works” and healing the sick.
St. Matthew’s Gospel offers the last reading, revealing not only the event of the story of the Lord’s baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, but the import of the event for us and for all believers.
Ritual washings, or baptisms, were popular in certain Jewish circles in the first century A.D. So, homes had ceremonial bathtubs. Archeologists who excavated the ruins of Masada, the great Jewish fortress high on a mountaintop overlooking the Dead Sea, discovered such baths there.
Being baptized, or bathing in these special pools, symbolized the yearning of a person to be rid of sin. It was as if sin stained not just the soul but also the body.
John the Baptist salutes Jesus as God’s anointed. Then, marvelously, miraculously, God appears and identifies Jesus as the Son of God. God could be seen and heard. To clarify the message even more, God speaks and gestures in ancient Old Testament words and symbols that no Jew would have misunderstood.
This feast of the Baptism of the Lord reveals the Lord’s identity to us. He is the Son of God, with all the force and mystery contained in this reality.
He is the Savior, rescuing us from eternal death by assuming our sins and by making amends to God for our sinfulness. He is the mediator, uniting us with God.
The Church makes the words of Peter to Cornelius its own, calling us to the Lord as our Savior.
We are sinners, the Church bluntly — but honestly — tells us. We need Jesus to reconcile us with God. He is our hope and our life.
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