Father Mitch Pacwa's homily for the Baptism of Jesus
Today, we mark the end of the Christmas season with the Baptism of the Lord. In fact, in the east, Epiphany is associated with the Baptism of the Lord as well as, of course, Christmas and the coming of the Magi. We celebrate this as a distinct feast to mark the beginning of what we call, Ordinary Time. The public ministry of Our Lord began not just by walking out of Nazareth, and starting going to the villages; but it began with this event. There’s a tremendous amount of richness in this for us to consider.
You know, Jewish converts–proselytes as they were called–would be baptized twice. They would be baptized once as a sign of entering into the Red Sea. And then they would be baptized a second time as an entrance into the Jordan River. These were considered two great events. And when somebody became Jewish, that was one of the processes that they would go through so they could enter, symbolically, into the experience of liberation from Egypt and enter into the Promised Land. And this was part of the background for people who left paganism to become Jewish.
That helps us to better understand this place of the baptism because it becomes a symbol, as Christ is baptized here, that this is part of the entrance into that Promised Land. He is reentering the Promised Land in this sign so that he can begin this public ministry throughout the people of Israel, as a way to announce to them this good news. That’s what’s is his message that we’ll hear next week.
He comes to proclaim, repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! He will give the rest of his teachings because the teaching of Our Lord is ultimately about a restoration of paradise. We are made in the image and likeness of God. That was the way it was in paradise. That image and likeness of God has so many elements to it. As St. Paul says to the Ephesians, that Christ is that perfect man. He is that new Adam. He is that restoration of the image and likeness of God in its fullness, unmarred by sin.
Sin is what makes the problem for us, not living in paradise. We have this tendency to sin, concupiscence, temptations from within us and out of us, and often we give into it. That’s part of the human condition. Christ comes to restore us to a paradise, to a promised kind of land. He begins that ministry by being baptized in the Jordan river. The ancient people of Israel, before they entered the land, the Jordan stopped and they walked through dry shod. That is what some of the background is. Now, we also see that this restoration of the image and likeness of God is something that has been reflected on in the Church for many centuries. It’s an extremely important concept.
Some theologians, like St. Thomas Aquinas, have emphasized the point that we are deemphasizing today; namely, that being made in the image and likeness of God means that we have rational thought; we can use the ability to reason, we can know a wide variety of possibilities, we can think about which of those is better or worse, and we can remember past experiences when the worst occurred, and we should therefore, avoid, or at least, should. That’s very much a part of human nature; it’s one of the elements that distinguishes us from the animals who follow instincts very quickly. They don’t write philosophy books. They don’t have a moral theology companion to consider how they should relate to the other animals. Lions have no trouble making a decision when they are hungry and they see a deer or something, no problem. They don’t think about it, they react. And the deer have no problem saying, maybe I should offer myself up for the lion. No, no, they don’t. They have no problem running as quickly as they can. That’s how nature is. And that’s good, but we can think.
And one of the other elements that comes from the ability to think and reason, to know, to remember, is that we therefore can make a decision. That is the basis for having free will. An element of what we see in today’s cancel culture is the elimination of certain ideas. Elimination of information. “You can’t know about this. You can’t study that.” And the lack of willingness to encourage people to go to original sources, to really know history, to learn from it that is denying the first part of being human; the ability to think.
Then the second part, the ability to make a decision. People don’t want you to know things so they can make decisions for you. They don’t want you to make your own decision based on what you think about. Once I was canceled on the Internet–a live broadcast in which I was praying the Rosary–they canceled it and cut it off, right away. As soon as I prayed for some of our Catholic politicians who are in favor of abortions–as soon as I prayed for them–wham! It was off. This is something we’re going to see more of. And we can expect, it’s not going to be one or other famous public person, it’s going to be every one and anyone. We have to remember, that is an attack on human dignity.
At its core, being able to think and then with the ability to reason and the ability to make a free decision. Our task is to respond to any of that by learning more, know more, not less. Never be satisfied with knowing less. Well, if they don’t want me to know, I guess I don’t need to. No, on the contrary, if they don’t want you to know it, you need to so you can make well informed decision based on truth. Because, that’s the other side of reason, it is what gives us a craving for the truth. Nobody likes being lied to; that’s contrary to the nature of humanity. So we need to know more of the facts, not less.
Another element, though, about being made in the image and likeness of God is directly connected to today’s Gospel. It’s an insight that St. John Paul II repeated many, many times–we, first of all, have to understand the nature of God, the great gift that Israel has been is to emphasize the opening lines of our creed. In just a couple of moments, we’ll be praying the creed. And the opening line of the creed, whether the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed, the opening line is, “we believe in one God;” this is key.
We reject multiple gods. We reject paganism. We reject worshiping other things, any creatures. We don’t deify nature like most of our ancestors had once done. And we believe in one God. That becomes a great liberty based on that knowledge.
Here, we also see that the one God reveals himself as three distinct persons so that, as God, the Son gets baptized, the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and God the father speaks, quoting today’s first reading from Isaiah 42, which is the first of four songs in Isaiah that are known as the Servant Songs. And as we heard today, here’s my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I’m well pleased. But here, that was said, by the way, by the prophet about Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia, who was the one chosen by God to let the people of Israel go from Babylon and come back home. That happened in 539 BC. So, he’s saying that about him. But now, God the Father appropriates that verse and says, not, you are my chosen one. But the slight emendation, you are my beloved son! And the fact of sonship shows that they are the same nature.
If you have a child, maybe, as my parents did say, maybe they act like little monkeys but they are not really monkeys, they are human beings. They have the same nature as you, that’s the nature of having children; they share our nature.
Here we see he is called, ‘my beloved son’. So, speaking of sharing the same nature, that’s what Christ meant later on in the Gospel, John 10, the Father and I are one. Not one person, but one in being. You couldn’t have it said, the Father and I unless that was two distinct persons. But he said, we are one in nature.
Here we see this initial public revelation of the Trinity. It brings out the oneness of God is also a threeness of person that makes it possible.
We’ve been listening the last week to the first epistle of Saint John. And in Chapter 4, twice he says, God is love. Now, this is something that people want to make banners and posters out of because it sounds so good, and it is good. But we can’t treat that superficially. If God is just love, it can sound like C.S. Lewis once said, like tweet tapioca pudding in the universe, something sweet, gooey, nice and bland. No, it’s the love of the Father and the Son who is the Holy Spirit. The love between them is the Holy Spirit.
St. Augustine brought out so wonderfully in his De Trinitate. And to see that this reality of three infinite persons of the one God, giving themselves to each other.
Remember how Our Lord said in John 16, everything the Father has, he has given to me and I return it. That this infinite giving and receiving, and that the infinite person of the Holy Spirit is that giving back and forth. And that this manifestation of the three persons opens the way for understanding what Christ later on will teach us, especially in John 14, 15, and 16 about the Blessed Trinity. This is a very important element.
As a matter of fact, that’s clearer in the Gospel of St. Matthew, though it is present in Mark too. The Baptism of Jesus at the beginning of the public ministry has, as a bookend. You see, Matthew sometimes thinks in bookends. So does St. Mark. They like to see everything in between, it’s understood in that light. You see that Jesus is baptized. And then, his last teaching is, 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.
That ministry of baptism of every one in the world is his command. It’s not like, oh, that would be nice. No, this is his command; that’s a bookend to his baptism. Notice how he gives us that formula, baptize them in the name–notice name is singular, because God is one–but the name of the Father, Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
So, it’s the one God but it’s three persons. Why? Because by our baptism, we become adopted children of God. As was mentioned in the opening prayer today. And in additions to being adopted children of God, we are invited to share in that infinite love of the three persons. The life of the Blessed Trinity comes within us. And it’s not just, well, part of the baptism, you get the life from the Blessed Trinity. We don’t take that, make it an act of faith without considering that this means entering into God’s love. That we in some ways, I remember this and I believe it was Archbishop Sheen who said this, that the Father and the Son want to look at our souls and see their own reflection in it, and that this is the process through life of getting purified.
You know, there’s a line in the Psalms repeated a couple of times, line 19 and elsewhere. Like, we find silver or gold, we are to be refined seven times. As some seminarians visiting a silversmith trying to understand the verse and went in there and just asked, trying to figure out what this means. And they were watching the process. Finally, it came clear to them and one of them said, well, how do you know when the silver is purified? Oh, when I can see myself in the molten silver, like a mirror, it’s clear. And they had the insight that the process of life is one of purifying our sinfulness, our pride, and all of the other sins that we do. Purifying that so that God can see his reflection in us and that the Father can see his Son, and the son can see the father. That this reflection of God means that we’re truly living the image and likeness of God, that we become more and more like Christ.
We become more and more holy as God is holy. That’s the norm. Leviticus brings up. Saint Peter cites. Be holy as the lord your God is holy. And that the goal of our baptism is to enter into the reflection of God, that image and likeness of God so that as Christ in some way reenacted the entrance into the Promised Land by being baptized in the Jordan, so too can we enter into the promised land of heaven. This is our goal and nothing less.
Transcript provided by WQPH