Saturday, January 8, 2011

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

There were five adult baptisms at the 5 PM Mass at the parish here in Taiwan.  Watching a baptism or administering the sacrament is always touching and standing the choir loft was no exception.  The expected emotional storm hit.  Four women and one man were baptized and received into the Church.  They smiled.  They wept.  It was a powerful moment watching Ignatius pour the water over their heads.  The parish has a good approach to the white garment.  The women received white lace veils and the man a white cape over his shoulders.  

I was taking photos (of course).  They did not come out as well as hoped.  Seem to be having trouble with the autofocus.  However, I will attach one that is of acceptable quality.  

In forty-eight hours I'll be on the way to the airport to catch the flight to Sydney.  Am getting eager. 

The Baptism of the Lord (Sacred Heart Parish Taipei, Taiwan)
9 January 2011
Is 42:1-4,6-7
Ps 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10
Acts 10:34-38
Mt 3:13-17

Back when I was a kid some fifty years ago, one of the most popular shows on television in the U.S. was the Art Linkletter Show.  It was a mix of variety and talk show.  The show’s most popular feature by far was a segment titled: “Kids Say the Darndest Things. ” Art would ask three or four children a simple question about what they liked or didn’t like, what their mommy was like and so on. Truer words have rarely been spoken. Kids DID say the darndest things with uninhibited honesty.   Some times it takes a child to point out what should be obvious to everyone else.   

About a year ago, my former chief resident Nick phoned early in the evening.  He was laughing.  Nick and his wife Susan had been looking at pictures of nine month-old Maya’s baptism with Sophie, Maya’s  older sister, their three year-old daughter.  While looking at the group photo taken near the baptismal font Sophie began pointing to various participants:  “Here’s mommy.  That’s daddy.  There is nana and grandpop.  That’s  ME”—she said that with a particular note of pride.  She then pointed to the priest in his long white vestments and asked, “Is that Jesus?”  Daddy and mommy dissolved into helpless laughter.

In fact she got it right.  Not by confusing the priest with Jesus.  She got it right by seeing Jesus present at Maya’s baptism. 

In the Church, today’s feast, the Baptism of the Lord, marks the end of the Christmas season.  Tomorrow we resume ordinary time with green vestments until the beginning of lent on Ash Wednesday.

In the New Testament Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry. 

There is no doubt that Jesus was baptized.  All four gospels tell of His baptism.  There is the usual variance in the description of the details.  John’s gospel is particularly cloudy.  The importance of Jesus’ baptism does not hinge on how it was performed, however, but on the significance of that baptism.  It does not matter if water was poured over His head or if He was totally immersed in the river.  The importance of Jesus’ baptism is what it means for us.  Today.  Here in Taipei and throughout the world. 

This is where Sophie’s question becomes relevant and theologically sophisticated. 

The readings, the Psalm, and the Gospel are all concerned with the significance of this event.

The majority of first readings during Advent and the Christmas season are from Isaiah, particularly what are called the servant songs.  The servant, as described in today’s reading, accomplishes his mission with quiet strength rather than brute force.  Why does Isaiah mention a bruised reed or a smoldering wick at all?  One commentator notes that the image indicates the servant’s gentle respect for others—and even his awareness of a hint of strength in their weakness.  What better description is there for Jesus in His public life?  Jesus who forgave the woman caught in adultery, Jesus who cleansed lepers, Jesus who prayed “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”?

Peter’s statements in the second reading elaborate Isaiah’s prophecy.  But, rather than speaking prophetically he is speaking historically.  Peter gives a brief synopsis of Jesus’ baptism by John and of Jesus’ ministry; a ministry which was possible only because “God was with him.” 

Peter’s statement that God shows no favoritism is central.  “In truth I see that God shows no partiality.  Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” It does not matter if one is economically disadvantaged or wealthy.  It is irrelevant if one belongs to the inner circle or is far outside that circle. Our social status does not make us acceptable or unacceptable to God.  What makes us acceptable to God is how we respond to His goodness; how we respond to His presence in our lives.  Living in faith, and acting on that faith, is what ultimately matters. 

“The voice of the LORD is over the waters
The LORD over the vast waters.
The voice of the LORD is mighty
The voice of the LORD is majestic.”

The psalm foretells the Gospel.  Thus we hear God’s voice as Jesus emerges from the water: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”  The role of John the Baptist as herald is officially over.  The one whose coming he announced has come.  He will fade into the background.

There are three ways to understand baptism in the New Testament.  The first is the most obvious:  washing, which is the literal meaning of the Greek root baptein or baptizein.  For us the washing includes forgiveness of sin.  But sin was the one human characteristic Jesus did not share with us.  Then why was He baptized?

The second New Testament understanding of baptism is that of dying and rising again. Baptism presaged the baptism of blood Jesus was to undergo at His crucifixion, His death, His burial, and His resurrection.  For us the waters of baptism suggest drowning in order to live anew, dying so as to live again. 

The third understanding of baptism in the New Testament is that of new birth; a birth in the Spirit, a very Pentecostal theme. 

There is one fact that unites all three understandings of baptism.  And this is where little Sophie proved herself to be a three-year old theologian. 
In all three meanings or understandings of baptism:  as washing, as dying and rising, or as new birth, Jesus Christ is the agent.  Jesus is there.  Perhaps He is smiling.  He may be looking on with concern and love; rather like Nick and Susan, and Sophie and the rest of the family looked on at Maya’s baptism.  Was Jesus’ hand underneath supporting little Maya as she was anointed with the oil of catechumens?  Was she cupped in Jesus’ hand as the waters of baptism were poured over her head? 

The name Sophia or Sophie means ‘wisdom.’  With the wisdom of a child, the wisdom that can see around corners and understand faint background shadows that are invisible to adult eyes, Sophie showed that she understood this celebration of her sister’s baptism.  But, she also understood today’s Feast of  the Baptism of the Lord.  Like us in all things but sin, Jesus, like us, received the waters of baptism . . . .He is present when we receive those same waters.  And He remains with us forever.

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