Fr Martin Browne OSB
On the first day of Christmas….. we didn’t sing at Mass about a partridge in a pear tree. Instead, Midnight Mass began with some lines from Psalm 2: ‘The Lord said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.’ Today, as we bring our Christmas celebrations to a close with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we hear very similar words in the Gospel. Not from an oracle or prophet or preacher, but from the Lord God himself. ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
It is almost as if our entire Christmas celebration is framed by these powerful and striking declarations of who this Jesus of Nazareth is. On Christmas Eve, we heard the words of a psalm, an inspired poetic song, honouring a king, which Christians have long heard as pointing towards Jesus, as we contemplated the birth of the infant Jesus. Today, we heard the voice, not of prophets or seers, but of God the Father himself, as the adult Jesus emerged from the waters of the Jordan. The words were the same: ‘You are my Son’.
Of course the line from Psalm 2 and the line from today’s Gospel were not exactly the same. The second half was different. On Christmas Eve we heard ‘today I have begotten you’, whereas today we heard ‘with you I am well pleased’. The first, like a man putting his name on a birth certificate – an acknowledgement of paternity; the second, like a man giving his son a major role in the family business – a seal of approval, and a kind of commissioning: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
To stretch the metaphor a little bit more, we could ask what was the ‘family business’ that the Father was entrusting to the Son? In a word: Salvation. We hear the word a lot in our worship and prayers, but despite that, it can feel a bit obscure or even slightly embarrassing to us today. But salvation is what the crib and the Baptism are about, and salvation is what the Cross and the empty tomb are about too. Salvation. Jesus – the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One – came to save us. Indeed the Holy Name itself can be translated as ‘the Lord saves’ or ‘the Lord is salvation’.
St Gregory of Nyssa expresses well why sinful humanity needed a Saviour: ‘Sick, our nature demanded to be healed; fallen, to be raised up; dead, to rise again. We had lost the possession of the good; it was necessary for it to be given back to us. Closed in the darkness, it was necessary to bring us the light; captives, we awaited a Saviour; prisoners, help; slaves, a liberator’. So that we might be healed, raised up, and rise again, and so that he might bring us light, a Saviour, help and liberation, Jesus came among us, sent by the Father. ‘It was in him, before the foundation of the world, that the Father chose us and predestined us to become adopted sons and daughters, for in him it pleased the Father to re-establish all things [LG 3].
The nativity scene depicted in our cribs invites us to adore. To savour and delight in the mystery of God-made-man, of God-with-us, and – with the Magi – to worship him. Still kneeling in wonder before this mystery, today’s feast begins to draw our attention from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, from the crib to the Cross. The only Son of God was born as a helpless baby in Bethlehem. At his Baptism in the Jordan, he began the public life that would lead to him dying, as the Suffering Servant, in Jerusalem. His mission begins with his Baptism.
St Mark tells us that John was ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins’. Having taken on human nature and been born in the flesh, now, at the beginning of his public life, Jesus undergoes an experience intended for sinners, but he had no sins to confess. Could God’s care for humanity be made any clearer? ‘He allows himself to be numbered among sinners; he is already “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. Already he is anticipating the “baptism” of his bloody death. Already he is coming to “fulfil all righteousness”, that is, he is submitting himself entirely to his Father’s will: out of love he consents to this baptism of death for the remission of our sins. The Father’s voice responds to the Son’s acceptance, proclaiming his entire delight in his Son. The Spirit whom Jesus possessed in fullness from his conception comes to “rest on him”. Jesus will be the source of the Spirit for all humanity. At his baptism “the heavens were opened”- the heavens that Adam’s sin had closed – and the waters were sanctified by the descent of Jesus and the Spirit, a prelude to the new creation’ [CCC 536].
We began today’s Mass by blessing and sprinkling water, in commemoration of our own baptism. We give thanks for that glorious moment when we were washed in the waters of new life and incorporated forever into the Body of Christ, our Head. As we heard at the Christmas Vigil, we now share in God’s own nature. As a great early Christian writer teaches us: ‘Everything that happened to Christ lets us know that, after the bath of water, the Holy Spirit swoops down upon us from high heaven and that, adopted by the Father’s voice, we become sons and daughters of God.’
Surely, there has been no greater moment in our lives. We give thanks for it. But let us give thanks too for the Baptism of the Lord, that moment when, after decades of hidden life with his family in Nazareth, he began the work he was sent to do. What the Magi recognised him to be – the Messiah – was now revealed to a larger audience by the waters of the river Jordan, and confirmed by the Father who sent him. ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
‘O come, all you peoples, worship him!
Praise to you, Lord, for your glorious Epiphany which brings joy to us all!
The whole world has become radiant with the light of your manifestation!’