Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, January 12, 2014

January 12, 2014 Father De Celles Homily

Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Springfield, VA

It seems that we just can’t get away from John the Baptist at this time of year.
On the second Sunday of Advent,
as we were beginning our preparation for Christmas,
we read about John the Baptist and his baptism of repentance,
as he prepared the way of the Lord.
And on the third Sunday we read how John the Baptist
sent messengers to Jesus to ask him if he was the Messiah.
And in the final week of Advent, as we read how
the angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary
of the conception of Jesus in her womb
he also told her of the conception of St. John in the womb of St. Elizabeth,
and how that Baby John leapt in his mother’s womb
when Mary actually visited them pregnant with the Baby Jesus.

And today we’re back with St. John the Baptist again.
But today he’s no longer preparing for Jesus coming
–he’s actually in the presence of the Savior,
as Jesus begins his public ministry.
He no longer has to say, “he’s coming”, now he says, “he’s here.”

But his service to his Savior isn’t over yet.
John has one final act to perform for Jesus,
as Jesus approaches John and asks him to baptize him.

Now, sometimes people are confused and even scandalized by this passage:
–why does Jesus who is God, and therefore in no need of salvation,
need baptism?
This confusion begins to be relieved when we remember that John’s baptism
is only a symbolic ritual to show a pious desire to wash away sins
–it didn’t actually wash them away as our sacrament of baptism does.
But still, why did Jesus,
who is the innocent one, the one like us in all things but sin
–and so in no need of repentance—
need to take part even in this symbol of repentance?

If you’re confused by this you’re not alone–John the Baptist was too.
Today’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus approached John for baptism,
–“John tried to prevent him:
`I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?'”
But then it also tells us the response Our Lord gave him:
–“Allow it for now, for thus it is fitting [or proper]
for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

When we were preparing for Christmas,
we focused quite a bit on the Baptist’s message of repentance of personal sins
–washing clean our souls
and preparing the way of the Lord directly into our hearts.
And then during this Christmas season,
we’ve focused on appreciating the wonder and awe
–the shear joy at the birth of God as man.

But today, we’ve come to the end of the season of Christmas.
And we’ve come almost full circle in our sharing of this season
with St. John the Baptist.
On the 2nd Sunday of Advent
we read about St. John in verses 1-12 from Chapter 3
of St. Matthew’s Gospel.
And today we pick up where we left off, again reading about St. John,
reading verses 13-17 from that same Chapter.

And in the heart of these two readings
–readings that form sort of bookends to this great season
–we find two very similar passages.
On the Second Sunday of Advent we read St. John saying of Jesus:
“I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,”
and today we read him telling Jesus:
“I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?'”
and then how,
“he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove
and coming upon him.”
The reading of these two verses on both the second Sunday of Advent,
and on the last Sunday of Christmas, is no accident.
In reality they’re the heart of the message of Christmas.

When John recognizes that he isn’t worthy to even carry Christ’s sandals,
he speaks for all mankind.
On our own we’re not worthy of the Lord,
and our repentance could never be worthy
to make up for our offenses against God.
But Christ is the Holy one, the perfect one.
And by taking on our nature he makes it possible for us to be worthy,
through him.
What the Fathers of the Church called an “admirabile commericium”
–a sort of “wonderful exchange” takes place:
he enters into and shares our human nature,
so that we can enter into and share in his divine nature.
He takes on human life so that he may give us a part in his divine life.

And so when Jesus goes to John for his baptism of repentance,
it isn’t out of necessity,
but because it’s part of the divine plan of this wonderful exchange.
He not only enters into our humanity in the Incarnation and Nativity,
now at His baptism He enters into our human sinfulness.
Not by sinning–but by accepting the consequences of our sins,
and taking on himself the responsibility to atone for our sins,
to do our penance, to achieve for us reconciliation with the Father.

Our mere human repentance is like mere water—it can’t save us.
But when the human repentance is joined to the divine power of Christ,
his penance–which begins in his entering into the world at Christmas
and is perfected in the sacrifice of the Cross–
his penance transforms and gives meaning to our penance,
and God and man can truly be completely reconciled.
The divine and the human can be reunited, in Christ.

The sacrament of Baptism is this entering into the life of Christ.
It finds it symbolic precursor in John’s baptism, but it’s not the same.
And so we read back in Advent that John prophesied
“I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit
And we see today that prophesy was fulfilled and baptism was transformed
as the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the waters of his baptism.
He makes baptism now his own, his own symbol
that he takes away the sins of the baptized
by entering the waters by the power of the Holy Spirit,
–he enters and takes away the sins of the world.
So that when you and I were baptized,
the prayer blessing the water asks the Father and the Son
to send their Holy Spirit on the waters of the baptismal font,
so that by the power of that Spirit
the waters of sacramental baptism really do wash away our sins,
and give us a share of a new life with Christ.

And this life only begins at baptism as we live out this life
every time we open our hearts to the grace of Christ,
–the power of the Holy Spirit we’ve received in baptism–
to live this new divine life everyday and in everything we do.

Today is the end of the joyful celebration of Christmas,
and it’s fitting that we end this celebration
in the company of John the Baptist.
His was the vocation to proclaim the message
to prepare for the Lord in repentance.
His was the example of humility that speaks for all mankind
before the Almighty Son of God.
His was the joy of greeting Christ even before his birth in the womb of Mary.
And his was the baptism of repentance
by which the Lord Jesus Christ accepted our human sins as his own
so that he could make atonement for us,
and issue the invitation to share in his divine life.

Today is the end of the celebration of the birth of the Baby Jesus.
But it is also a new beginning of our celebration of all that that birth meant.
Because, as wonderful as it is to meditate
on the innocence of the babe born in Bethlehem,
and on the awesomeness of the incarnation of love that his birth means,
Christ did not come into the world to be a baby:
he came to be a man and offer a manly sacrifice.
So that on this day of his Baptism we turn our faces
from the babe in Bethlehem and the child in Nazareth,
to the man Jesus
who today turned his face to the cross in Jerusalem.
Today, in the light and joy of Christmas we remember
that God the Son entered the world on Christmas to save us
by his atonement for our sins on the Cross;
to transform our weak and sinful lives,
as he offers us share in his own glorious divine life

Today, as we meditate on the mystery of the Lord’s Baptism,
we end the celebration of his birth,
but we begin again the celebration of our re-birth in Christ.
A rebirth into the life that is the reason and promise of Christmas:
a life that is a sharing the union of divinity and humanity in Christ;
a life that is a sharing in his innocence, joy and love;
a life that is a sharing in his atonement, suffering, and sacrifice.
In short, a rebirth into a life that is a true sharing in his Sonship.
So that if we truly accept that life and live that life in Christ,
we may also share in hearing His Father’s words of infinite love spoken to us:
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”