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1/15/23 Homily: Water and Baptism

Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]


Today, we hear about the baptism of Jesus by John at the Jordan River. To better appreciate the significance of John’s baptism, it helps to understand the biblical view of water at a cosmic scale. I’ve spoken on this before.


When the ancients looked up into the sky, they saw that it was blue like the ocean. An ocean was above us, which would occasionally open to let down the rain. Many peoples—not only the Israelites—speculated that the original state of the world was that everything was once completely submerged in water. The Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus, believed that water was the first principle of all things. He’s held by many to be the first of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, and the first historical person to have engaged with scientific philosophy.


With regard to the people of God, the Book of Genesis also describes the original state of the world that God created as an enormous body of water. It was God’s Word that separated the waters. The Lord maintained that separation by establishing a firmament in the sky to separate the waters above. He created a basin to gather the waters below into the ocean.


Now, if God’s Word separated the waters, then a rejection of that Word resulted in the reunion of the waters, and likewise death by flood. For example, remember the story of Noah and the arc. When all of mankind rebelled against God through sin, the floodgates of heaven were opened, the ancient fountains burst forth, and all living creatures on the face of the earth perished, except those in the arc.


This theme of death by water is a recurring one in the Old Testament. We heard of it again at the Red Sea during the great Exodus from Egypt. God Word opened up a dry path in the midst of the Red Sea, so that the Israelites could pass through unharmed. But when the Egyptians, who rejected God and his people, tried to also pass through, the walls of water on each side collapsed on them, and they were annihilated.


This leitmotif is seen even in the New Testament. When a boat filled with disciples was tossed about on the stormy sea, and water pressed in on every side, it was a sign of mankind’s vulnerability in the world. The present situation of humanity was that mankind was a race of unrighteous sinners deserving of annihilation. Rightfully, they were all terrified for their lives. At the time, the Lord had been asleep in the hold. But when the Lord awakens, he calms the sea with a word. That’s the power of God’s word: it brings order and safeguards human life. Rebellion against that word brings chaos and death; very specifically, death through the deluge of water.


John’s baptism was a baptism of water. Symbolically, it was an immersion into death, which is the rightful punishment for sinners. That’s why they who came to John allowed themselves to be submerged into the waters. They were acknowledging that they were sinners, and they acknowledged that they deserved to bear the consequence for their sins. It was a sign of their repentance from sin.


The scribes and Pharisees never admitted to sin; and so, they didn’t receive the baptism of John. But Jesus did come forward to be baptized by John. Even though Jesus is completely without sin, he nevertheless allowed himself to be identified with sin in solidarity with all of mankind; because that’s where mankind is at—it’s plagued by sin.


This is yet another moment in the trajectory of Jesus which began at his conception and continues until he is submerged into death itself for our salvation. That’s how God chose to redeem us; the Holy One without sin plummets into our fallenness and into the punishment merited by sin.


Saint Paul describes it so beautifully in his letter to the Philippians: Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a Cross.


This is how far our God goes to unite himself to our entire human condition [gesturing to the Crucifix]. Once he is fully immersed into our humanity by death, human nature forever becomes fused to the divine. And because Jesus himself is without sin, and the righteous one cannot decay, final justice demands that Jesus rise from the dead. And consequently, our humanity rises alongside of him.


This played out symbolically at the Jordan. By entering into the waters, Jesus wasn’t polluted. Rather, his presence purified the waters, and his resurfacing hinted at the glorification of humanity in the Resurrection. And to crown the event, it was there, when Jesus stood in solidarity with the human race, that God’s innermost identity as the Holy Trinity was revealed publicly for the first time: the Father’s voice was heard, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” as the Holy Spirit descended upon the Son in bodily form like a dove.


As we continue this Mass and our day, let’s reflect upon this message we’re given. Our God identifies with us fully, and has gone to great lengths to redeem each you and me. When we in humility also acknowledge our sins and our need for the Savior, we are joined to Jesus, and God reveals his innermost identity to us, and affirms our identity in him. This Mass is an example: we begin Mass by confessing our sins, and later in the Mass, we behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And our dignity as God’s sons and daughters is reaffirmed.

The Baptism of Christ, by Pietro Perugino, c. 1482, fresco, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City State. [Public Domain]

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