First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Second Reading: Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Gospel: Luke 3:15-16; 21-22
THEME: WE ARE INITIATED TO BEAR AUTHENTIC WITNESS FOR CHRIST IN THE WORLD!
Traditionally, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord officially marks the End of the Christmas Season, which then ushers the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, that is, Christ’s acceptance and inauguration of His mission as God’s servant, and also the beginning of the Ordinary Time of the Church’s liturgical year and calendar. This feast is the second Epiphany, God revealing Himself to sinners in the person of Christ, whereby God, through the Holy Spirit declared the Identity of the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit as His Beloved Son. It is can also be referred to as “Theophany”, that is, manifestation of God, the manifestation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, and the wondrous manifestation of the august mystery of the most Holy Trinity.
In some African cultures, for anyone to be accepted, enrolled or allowed to participate in any group, he or she must undergo Initiation Ceremonies (Rite of Passage) such as; Circumcision, Child-naming, Purification, etc., so as to be reborn into a new role. Similarly, before anyone becomes a full member of the Christian community, he or she must undergo an Initiation Ceremony, such as; Baptism and Confirmation, which imprint indelible marks (sacramental characters) to the recipients. Through these ceremonies, the person receives an Ontological Identity as a Son or Daughter of a particular community.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Baptism is a sacrament that cleanses us from original sin, make us Christians, children of God and members of the Church. It is a Sacrament of Initiation that purifies us from all our sins, rescues us from the power of darkness (Colossians 1:13-14) and brings us to the dignity of adopted children of God (Romans 8:15). It is the sacrament of salvation and the gateway to all other sacraments. Christian initiation is accomplished by means of the sacraments which establish the foundations of Christian life. The faithful born anew by Baptism are empowered by Confirmation and are then nourished by the Holy Eucharist. Thus, this is an invitation to participate in the fulness of the life of God through charity, forgiveness, humility, obedience, fidelity, etc.
Moreover, Baptism establishes a new relationship between us and God, incorporates us into Christ, and initiates us into Community of believers. Thus, it confers on our Souls a Permanent Character (Ontological Identity), designating permanent relationship with Christ and His Church. Of course, Baptism, together with Confirmation and Holy Orders (priestly ordination) are the only sacraments that imprint indelible spiritual marks (sacramental characters) on the receivers. Hence, through baptism, we become a new creation, old things pass away, everything becomes new (2 Corinthians 5:17). This is a precious gift that comes from God’s gracious love and not as a result of what we have done.
Also, by the virtue of our baptism, we become priests, kings and prophets so as to continue in the work of creation and the salvific work in the world as soldiers of Christ. That is why before Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, He commissioned His disciples with this Great Mandate: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). Hence, we are commissioned to bear authentic witness for Christ in the world.
Meanwhile, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 597 B.C., the Judeans went into exile where they suffered grievously and wallowed in darkness. At some point, they began to query the faithfulness and omnipotence of their God who had allowed His people to suffer defeat in the hand of a pagan nation. However, in the FIRST READING, God revived their drooping spirits through prophet Isaiah; assuring them that their years of suffering, slavery and darkness have come to an end. Although He allowed them to be captured by their enemies due to their disobedience, but will soon redeem them and bring them back home, so that their souls may live. But in order to experience the fullness of God’s glory, He invites them to fill up every valley and level every mountain on their way, that is, repentance.
Surprisingly, in the GOSPEL, before His public ministry, Jesus Christ who had NO SIN, yet came to receive John’s Baptism of repentance, why? First, He did that so as to identify Himself with all sinners, take their sins upon Himself, do penance for them and thus expiate their sins with His Blood. By so doing, He sanctified the water of Baptism for the purification of the souls of those that would come to Him through it, so that they can be forgiven and thus renewed. For during baptism, we die with Christ and rise with Him in the newness of life (Romans 6:3-4).
Furthermore, the second reason was, for John (His Precursor) to recognize Him as the Messiah and thus present Him to his audience as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). For John the Baptist did not know whom the Messiah was, but had been given a sign by which he would recognize Him: “I myself did not know Him, but the One who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).
Moreover, the third reason was, for the scriptures to be fulfilled, because immediately John recognized Christ, he wanted to dissuade Him and said: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as He came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to Him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:14-17).
In the SECOND READING, St. Paul urges us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, which tend to send us into spiritual exiles, but to live sober, upright and godly lives in this world. Since through Baptism we have received New Life (Ontological Identity) in Christ, we participate in His death and resurrection, and have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to become partners with Christ in His redemptive mission. So, in order to be truly part of Christ’s life, St. Paul enjoins us (Ambassadors of Christ) to keep to the demands of our baptism, that is, living a life filled with love, humility, patience, justice, perseverance, prayer, righteousness, kindness, forgiveness, hospitality, generosity, etc., so as to renew the face of the earth.
Finally, since out of His Love for humanity, Jesus Christ bore witness to the Father through Water (His Baptism) and Blood (His Death), and the Holy Spirit testifies this truth, and also delivered us from the powers of darkness, therefore, let us with faith, reciprocate this Love of God by bearing authentic witness for Christ in our families, communities, and in the world at large. This can be actualized through our repentance (sacrament of reconciliation), and by practically extending our love and charity to others; by so doing, they may emulate us and be drawn to Christ.
Peace of Christ be with you…
Rev. Fr. Benjamin Okala, C.S.Sp.