Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord
[Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 104; Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22]
Recently I was speaking with someone, who told me that, while out in a store shopping, she happened to cough. Right away, someone nearby turned and looked at her with a rather frightened expression. I’ve noticed the same thing; perhaps you have as well. If, for example, I simply clear my throat, people around me give a little start and begin to move away. We know the reason: for quite some time now we have become hyper-sensitive to symptoms that may indicate the presence of COVID. None of us, of course, wants to have the virus or hand it on to others, and it is good to be able to say to someone who is worried, “I’m not sick.” But confirmation of its presence or absence is not easy. Rapid tests are helpful, but definitive verification, we are told, requires expert confirmation.
In the Scripture passages for this mass, and in the biblical texts we have heard throughout the Christmas season, we encounter among the people a hyper-sensitivity to symptoms that indicate not the existence of a disease but the presence of One who can cure it definitively. The people were already acutely aware of the virus of sin, but ever since the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard in the first reading, they looked for signs, or symptoms, if you will, that would indicate the presence of the One promised by God to deliver them from it.
At the birth of Jesus, those symptoms pointing to the fulfillment of God’s promises began to show themselves. Angels spoke to shepherds about a child identified by its swaddling clothes and placement in a manger. A wondrous star moved through the sky and settled over the place where the child lay. In later years, John the Baptist identified himself as the long-anticipated “voice in the wilderness” heralding the presence of the Messiah. The sensitivity of the people to these signs drew them to Jesus, as word spread that he might be the Messiah. Yet, the symptoms needed expert verification, so that they would be interpreted correctly.
This is what is happening at the Baptism of the Lord. It is a moment of divine revelation, during which the highest expert authority, God the Heavenly Father, definitively confirms what the symptoms were indicating: the presence of the long-promised Saviour. The signs pointing to Jesus as the One sent by God to free the world from sin are verified by the Father as true. But what is communicated in the act of confirmation is infinitely beyond what any human expertise in signs associated with biblical prophecy could ever have anticipated. The Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father verifies that Jesus is none other than His Beloved Son. The one baptized by John is no mere human being. He is the very Son of God who, in human nature now anointed by the Holy Spirit, will fulfill his mission as Saviour of the world.
Long ago, as we heard in the first reading, God promised that His very presence among the people would be a source of great comfort. This is very different from the relief I feel when I see a rapid test for COVID show a negative result. The positive indication of the presence of God in Jesus Christ, when accepted in faith, gives rise to a peace beyond human understanding, a real consolation and comfort that can co-exist with even the most difficult circumstances. It is important in our present day to emphasize this. Currently, widespread anxiety, bitterness and frustration are symptomatic of an underlying fear inhabiting the lives of many people today. This fear is itself born of a sense of isolation and powerlessness in the face of circumstances beyond our control, of which COVID is only one among many. When events at the Baptism of the Lord verify the truth of God’s presence with us in Christ, then we know we are not alone, we are assured that God is at work with His infinite power to turn all circumstances in our lives, however challenging, to our good. With this confirmation, fear yields to peace and we are comforted with the consolation that only God can give.
Our consolation and comfort deepen when we listen to St. Paul. In the passage from his letter to Titus, he speaks not of the Lord’s Baptism but our own. There he teaches that the very same Spirit bestowed upon Christ at his Baptism is poured out upon us in ours. In his other letters Paul explains that this gift of the Spirit so unites us to Jesus that, in him, we become the daughters and sons of God. United with the Beloved Son, we, too, are God’s beloved. There is no greater source of consolation than that. If we could just learn to live as the beloved of God, by allowing God to love us, forgive us, heal us, and carry us, much more encouraging symptoms than the ones we see now marking our world would soon manifest themselves: despair would change to hope; distress to peace, and fracture to unity.
This brings us to the responsibility that is ours as a baptized people. While we do not want to be a transmitter of the coronavirus, there is another sense in which every Christian must strive to be infectious. Our call from God, stemming from our Baptism in Christ, is to be missionaries in the world, spreading the good news of God’s saving presence in Jesus. While a cough or sneeze will surely cause people to distance themselves, a Christian life that is “self-controlled, upright and godly,” as Paul puts it, is inherently attractive and, in a positive sense, highly contagious. The Christian is called not to live an asymptomatic life, but instead to allow others to see the hope, peace, and joy that are symptomatic of our union with Christ and thus announce him to others.
That baptismal union with our Lord, the Beloved Son of the Father, is deepened by the mystery of the Eucharist. By the grace that comes from communion with Christ, may we embrace anew the wonder of God’s love, and the mission that is ours to confirm by our lives the truth of God’s saving presence in the world.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
St. Joseph’s Basilica
January 9th, 2022