Sunday January 13, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Baptism of the Lord
Reading I (Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7) Reading II (Acts 10:34-38)
Gospel (St. Matthew 3:13-17)
Today we celebrate a feast which is connected with last week's feast. Last week, we spoke on the Feast of the Epiphany about how the Church had traditionally celebrated three different events on that day because there were three different manifestations of Our Lord's divinity. They celebrated the manifestation to the nations through the star; they celebrated the manifestation of Christ to John the Baptist at His Baptism; and they celebrated the manifestation of Our Lord to His apostles as He changed the water into wine at Cana. [These are] the three first points of the manifestation of Our Lord's divinity.
But what the Church has done now is to separate the Baptism of the Lord out because of the importance of that particular point of His Baptism. And so we celebrate that not connected entirely with the Epiphany, but on its own because, as we heard in the first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, God has chosen His servant. He has set Him up as a light to the nations, as a covenant of the people. That is the point that must be understood in the importance of this feast today.
People oftentimes will ask, "Why is it that Jesus needed to be baptized?" After all, the baptism of John was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. We know that when we are baptized all sin is remitted and we become members of Jesus Christ. So why is it that Our Lord needed to be baptized? He did not have sin. He is the One who was the covenant, so why did He need to be baptized? The saints tell us that what happened in the Baptism of Jesus is not that Our Lord was made holy, but rather the waters of Baptism were made holy for all of us. We hear so often in many other areas of life that we should not require anything of anyone else that we ourselves are unwilling to do. And so Our Lord has shown us the way; He is the One who first entered into the waters.
We remember, too, that in our own Baptism, as we enter into the fullness of Christ, we enter into His death and Resurrection. The water for the people of Israel was a sign of chaos. And out of the chaos in creation, God brought order. That, again, is what we are seeing in Baptism: that we enter into the chaos of death and we come out a new creation; we come out resurrected with Our Lord, sharing in the divine life.
In this Baptism of Our Lord, He is being clearly shown as the servant whom the Lord has chosen. And being that servant, as we hear in the 42nd chapter of the prophet Isaiah today (we know also that the servant is spoken of in chapters 49, 50, 52, and 53 of Isaiah), He is what is known as the "Suffering Servant". Those Suffering Servant songs are well worth reading over and over and over because, once again, for the Lord to enter into this Baptism, to be shown as the covenant of the people, to be shown as the light of the nations, to be the One who is going to gather all the tribes of Israel, He is the One who will have to suffer and die for the people. It is in that that He will fulfill what began with this Baptism.
The word baptism itself means "to cleanse". But it is not the Lord who is being cleansed, it is all of those who are members of the Lord who are being cleansed. It is for all of us that He entered into Baptism. As we celebrate this feast today, we see then how the Church understands this point of Our Lord being baptized for each one of us, being this light to the nations which was spoken of Him by Simeon when Our Lord was brought to the temple by His Mother and Saint Joseph: Simeon called Him specifically the light to the Gentiles, "the light to the nations". He was foretold through the prophets and He is the fulfillment of all of that.
We see that in the second reading: Peter goes to the house of Cornelius who is a pagan, and he says, "Now I see that God does not show partiality, but anyone of any nation who believes, the Holy Spirit can come upon them." And so the people of Cornelius' house were the first pagans to be baptized. When Peter went back to Jerusalem, the people in Jerusalem had heard that he had gone into this home of a pagan, and they did not understand. Peter went on to explain to them that when they [the pagans] were baptized, the Holy Spirit had come upon them just as the Holy Spirit had come upon the disciples at Pentecost. Then they all rejoiced and recognized that the Lord did not come as the Messiah only for the Jewish people, but for all the peoples of the world, for all the nations.
That is what this Baptism of Our Lord symbolizes today and demonstrates very clearly for us: He is not a light only for the Jewish people, but rather He is the servant for the people of Israel. The Lord makes very clear that "it is not enough for you only to be My servant to gather the people of Israel", but He is going to make Him the light to the nations. And so He is manifested clearly as He comes up out of the water. We are told in the Gospel reading, on the lips of Our Lord Himself, that the reason He needed to be baptized was to fulfill all righteousness. Once again, it is all righteousness - not only for the righteousness of the Jewish people, but for all of us who would be made righteous in Baptism. John the Baptist acquiesces and Our Lord is baptized; the heavens are opened and the Holy Spirit descends upon Our Lord in the form of a dove and the Father's voice is heard.
Once again, we see that it is a manifestation of the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit being manifested for us so that we would understand, so that we would believe, so that as each one of us enters into Baptism and the Holy Spirit descends upon each one of us, the Father says of each one of us: "You are my beloved son (or my beloved daughter), upon whom my favor rests. In you, I am well pleased." It is the Holy Trinity who dwells in each one of us through Baptism. God calls each one of us to that righteousness, to that holiness, to be justified in His sight, to that righteousness which begins at Baptism but must grow within each one of us.
It is not enough for us to simply look back and say, "We are baptized, and that is all that is necessary." There are many Christian people who seem to believe that as long as you believe in Jesus and you are baptized, you are going to Heaven; it does not matter what else you do, you are made righteous in the Lord and all else is taken care of. That is not the case at all. The Lord entered into Baptism to fulfill all righteousness. Baptism, for us, is the beginning of righteousness. It is what follows from that - living the life of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, living a life which makes us truly pleasing to our heavenly Father - that the Lord is asking of each one of us. And so, it is not enough to sit back and say, "As long as I am baptized, I don't have anything else to worry about." But rather, it is to say, "I have been baptized into Jesus Christ. I have entered into the covenant who is Jesus Christ. Now I am called to life the life of holiness required of that Baptism. I am called to live a life of righteousness, to grow in the Lord."
For each one of us, as we celebrate this Feast of Our Lord's Baptism and we see that He is that covenant into which each one of us has been baptized, we need, then, to look into the terms of that covenant. We need to ask ourselves if we are living the vows that we made at Baptism, if we are being faithful to the covenant into which we have been baptized. In other words, are we rejecting Satan and all of his works and all of his empty promises throughout every moment of the day? Is our life set upon the faith that we profess in the Creed - in our belief in God, in our belief in His Son Jesus, in our belief in the Holy Spirit, in our belief in the Church and in the resurrection from the dead and life everlasting - which we profess every day? That is what we professed on the day of our Baptism. And it is not enough just to profess it on our lips; we must live it in our lives. Our lives must reflect the covenant into which we have been incorporated.
The covenant is not something which is at an arm's distance. The covenant is not something which is written on paper or on stone, in this case. The covenant is a Person, and the Person is Jesus Christ. And the covenant has been written on the hearts of each one of us. We are called, then, to live the covenant into which we have been incorporated, into the Person of Jesus Christ, to live the life of Christ, to fulfill the righteousness of our own lives so that we will grow in holiness and we will live the life, through the power of the Holy Spirit, which is truly pleasing to our heavenly Father.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.