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This Sunday, Baptism of the Lord Year C, corrects a misimpression we might have from our Christmas celebration.
The pattern that we saw at Advent and Christmas went like this: John appears, tells us to prepare, we barely do, and then we are flooded with peace, joy, decorations and presents.
There’s nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. But it can tend to make us think that the faith is about beautiful aesthetics and sweet feelings. The Baptism of the Lord tells us it’s not.
You could almost say that the Church returns to the Baptism of Jesus again and again to make sure we understand this right.
In Advent, John the Baptist tells us, “One mightier than I is coming” — exactly what he tells us this Sunday. Then Christ comes as a baby, someone people have to believe in and journey to in order to see.
At the Baptism, we hear him the same words — then Christ comes as a full-grown man. And now, if we believe, we have to journey with him into the world.
At Lent, we will return to this scene once again — and follow Jesus after the baptism into the desert for 40 days, preparing to face Satan.
So the “John, then Jesus, then Jesus with me” pattern repeats — only it turns step by step from Christmas sweetness to Christian sternness.
But a second pattern also repeats — this one goes, “The Spirit comes, the Father blesses, the Son sends.” Mary was the first to experience that, when the angel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God … and he will reign.”
Then Elizabeth experienced that pattern when Mary visited her, and she was “filled with the Holy Spirit” and greeted Mary as “the mother of my Lord,” and heard the great Magnificat prayer.
The Gospel for this Sunday shows the same pattern. Jesus is baptized and then, “The Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”
Fifth-Century bishop St. Maximus of Turin spelled out this “Spirit, Father, Son” pattern this way:
The Baptism of the Lord “is another kind of birth of the Savior. We see Him born with the same sort of signs, the same sort of wonders, but with greater mystery. And the Holy Spirit, who was present to Him then in the womb, now pours out upon Him in the torrent. He who then purified Mary for Him now sanctifies the running waters for Him. The Father who then overshadowed in powers now cries out with His voice … ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear Him.’”
John explains what this has to do with us.
When the great one comes, John tells his ancient listeners, and us, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
The first part of that is important — that part about being baptized with the Holy Spirit.
As the Second Reading option from the Letter to Titus puts it, “he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit … so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life. “
If we are Spirit-filled “heirs,” then we are adopted sons and daughters of God.
Thus, our Baptism is the great moment that sees the reversal of the lie Satan told to Adam and Eve. Satan tricked them into the first sin by telling them sin would let them become like gods. Instead, sin brought death. Now, God gives us Baptism to actually become like God, by being reborn through his death and resurrection and filled with the Holy Spirit.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit give us what we need to be virtuous. As St. Paul puts it to Titus, “the grace of God has appeared … training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly and devoutly.”
But the second half of that statement, about being baptized “by fire” is also important.
Jesus will later say, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”
What exactly he meant became obvious at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit appeared on the Apostles’ heads like tongues of flame — and then they burst open the doors of the Upper Room and proclaimed to the world that it had a new king: Jesus Christ himself.
Their baptism in water meant a baptism by fire — and led to a baptism of blood, as their insistence on preaching Jesus to the nations got them killed.
But look at how effective their baptism was. Our Lord started with 12 Apostles and a number of disciples. By the year 100 AD that had become 7,500 Christians, then by the year 150 AD there were about 40,000. By 250 AD, there were 1.1 million Christians; in 350 AD, there were 34 million.
As St. Catherine of Siena said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire!” The Apostles were what they should be, baptized by the Holy Spirit and by fire.
And many Christians are what they should be to this day. The great untold story of the 20th Century was the enormous growth of the Church all over the world. In Africa, followers of Jesus grew from 10 million Christians to 400 million. India now has five times as many Catholics as Ireland. China will soon have more churchgoers than America.
God’s grace multiplies much faster than we give it credit for, but it always with individual Christians who take their Baptism seriously.
The words of Isaiah in Sunday’s First Reading apply to each of us who have been incorporated into Christ: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit … I have grasped you by the hand, I formed you and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations.”
At Advent and Christmas, John the Baptist’s drum roll ended with all eyes on the Baby Jesus. At the Baptism of the Lord, all eyes are on us.
Will we take Jesus seriously, or not? If we don’t, the future will hold a world of hurt. If we do, we will set the world ablaze with the light of Christ.