Reflections for the Baptism of the Lord (Cycle C)

Rite and Reality
Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
This article originally appeared in the January 2010 edition of Celebration.

Isa 40:1-5, 9-11
Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7
Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

In the Didache (also called “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” written around the year 100), there are instructions concerning the rite of initiation into Christ: “Baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, in living water. But if you have not living water, baptize in other water. If you cannot baptize in cold, then in warm … pour water three times on the head.”

Unchanged through the centuries, the sacramental rite of baptism always involves water, whether it is from a small font, a full-size immersion bath or even a freshwater river or lake. For the most part, the water is clear, clean and an appropriate symbol for expressing the baptismal cleansing by which sins are forgiven and the newly initiated are incorporated into Christ and the church. Today’s feast, with its focus on Jesus’ baptism, invites each of us to remember the grace and blessing of our own baptism.

Other images can help us deepen our understanding of how this rite is translated into the reality of our everyday lives. One is in The Shawshank Redemption, Stephen King’s novella — made into a movie in 1994 — about Andy Dufresne’s more than 20-year incarceration at Shawshank Prison in Maine for a crime he did not commit. Set in the 1940s, the tale details the escape of an innocent man: his redemption. After years of burrowing his way through the cell walls, Dufresne finally swims through the filthy waters of the prison sewer system and emerges a free man ready to make a new beginning at life. That new beginning is made all the more poignant by the fact that he exchanges his prison garb for a new suit, his former name for a new one and his prison cell for a beautiful new home on a beach in Mexico. In those waters through which he swam, he experienced a “baptism.” King has given us here a story that encourages each of us to accept our own struggles, to view the evil and suffering of life as a redemptive passage to a new and holier existence.

Similarly baptismal in character are the experiences of thousands of immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Central America who risk their lives to cross the Rio Grande into the United States. Despite prosecution and almost certain persecution, these so called “wetbacks” are willing to make this watery passage in order to try to find a life for themselves and their loved ones. The fact that immigrants are willing to cross that river again and again attests to the preciousness of the gift of life that they continue to seek. Their many “baptisms” continue to testify against immoral and biblically unjust policies that persist in withholding life and dignity from them. When they are asked why they continue to risk the “baptism” of the Rio Grande, their replies are simple and truthful: “There is no other way.” “There is no hope for us anywhere else.” “We want to live freely and make a life for our families.”

Also seeking a better life are the thousands of immigrants and refugees from Africa who board makeshift boats and travel across the Mediterranean Sea in search of a welcome. Many die on the way from hunger, thirst, disease and exposure to the elements. Hundreds crowd aboard makeshift boats that are not seaworthy — so great is their desire for life; so profound is their hope. Yet these desires and hopes are repeatedly dashed as many drown and others are detained and then deported. Theirs is a virtual death sentence, yet they continue to set out daily on the watery journey, at which end they hope to find life and welcome. History preserves the accounts of similar waves of boat people from Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti and other war-torn or poverty-stricken regions of this world. Some have survived their “baptismal” passages and have succeeded in starting their lives anew, but for most, the rigors of their watery journey have ended badly.

While today we celebrate with serenity and solemnity the baptism of Jesus, and while we praise God for our own sacramental sharing in the life of God in Christ, we cannot help but remember those countless others who are dying in the hope of having a similar experience.

Isa 40:1-5, 9-11
When the descendants of Abraham found themselves enslaved in Egypt, divine intervention came to them in the person of Moses, who was cast adrift as a baby on the waters of the Nile by his mother. Little Moses, whose name was derived from the root mashah or “to draw” (as from out of the water), was rescued from certain death by Pharaoh’s daughter (Exod 2:10). Later, Moses would lead his people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom via the Sea of Reeds. This watery passage became a pivotal moment in Israel’s history because it marked their deliverance by God and their emergence as a nation unto themselves with a land and a history and a future of their own. All later experiences of deliverance would be interpreted in light of that initial exodus event.

For that reason, the sixth-century B.C.E. prophet Deutero-Isaiah comforted his exiled contemporaries with the hope that God would effect for them a new exodus and a new experience of deliverance. During their first journey to freedom, they traveled from west to east through the Arabian desert, but on this trip God would lead them from Babylon in the west to their homeland of Judah. Their initial desert trek had been eased by the gifts of God’s presence and food in the form of manna, quail and water from the rock. As promised by the prophet, their second desert experience would be enriched by the glory of God revealed for all to see. With their sins forgiven and their guilt expiated, the refugees from exile would be free to travel homeward through a wasteland transformed into a highway by God.

In the second half of this excerpted text, Deutero-Isaiah has described his people’s restoration as “glad tidings” or “good news” — that is, as gospel (v. 9). The prophet called for his people not to fear any evil or exile or suffering or any sort, but to cry out, “Here is your God who comes with power!” This declaration, also called by scholars an oracle of salvation, announces that the tide has turned and all will be well. The announcement, insists Paul D. Hanson, can transform the darkest tragedy into the deepest blessing (Isaiah 40-66, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky.: 1995). However, the transition for the Israelites from divine absence to divine presence would not be an easy one. They were very far from home, from their temple and from their way of life. Babylon’s great army and its powerful leaders stood in their way. Nevertheless, throughout the remainder of his Book of Consolation (Chapters 44-55), the prophet would never call for military rearmament. On the contrary, he would call for his contemporaries to focus again and again on their one defense against all that threatened them: the very power of their God, exercised in their behalf with the strong arm of compassion. Here, as elsewhere in the scriptures, the divine compassion is defined in terms of a shepherd feeding and gathering the lambs and carrying them with great care.

When Jesus appeared in flesh and blood, in time and space, this announcement or oracle of salvation was fulfilled in him. “Here is your God!” This is indeed good news.

Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7
When athletes take up a sport, it is necessary for them to enter into a process of training in order to learn the rules, to become adept at playing it and to become accustomed (if it is a team sport) to cooperating well with others. Artists also undergo periods of training, as do other professionals, so as to maintain their proficiency in their chosen field. In this excerpted text, the author of this pastoral letter to Titus made a similar point regarding baptized believers. Those who are baptized into Christ Jesus are thereby also agreeing to enter into a process of training. For believers, this training is supervised and moved forward by grace. Through grace, the baptized are guided by God in all things and are enlightened and empowered to know how to choose the good and to recognize and reject what is not.
If the consensus of scholars is correct, Titus was pseudonymously attributed to Paul by one of his disciples near the end of the first or the beginning of the second century. Addressed to Titus and the newly founded churches of Crete, this letter was an attempt to bring the wisdom and pastoral insights of Paul to subsequent generations of Christians. These believers belonged to a growing and developing church dealing with issues of church organization, false teaching and community relations. Today’s excerpted text is from a longer section of the letter, which touched upon the proper relationship among members of the community and the unity that all should find in their shared faith. In all their works and words, in all their choices and decisions, the community of those who are trained by grace should bear witness to that grace and to the One who gave himself up for us, the Savior Jesus.

To further illustrate the transformative grace of baptism, the ancient author described the sacramental experience as a “cleansing” and as a “bath of rebirth.” Raymond E. Brown has pointed out that many of the ideas in this text and its beautiful hymn are Pauline or Deutero-Pauline, but “rebirth” (palingenesia) is not used elsewhere by Paul (An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, New York: 1997). Some suggest that the image was borrowed from Stoicism or the mystery cults. But the idea that accepting Christ can be a new birth, Brown insisted, has particular significance against a background of Judaism where birth from a Jewish parent made one a member of God’s chosen people.

Because of the letter’s poetry and sacramental significance, some have suggested that the author of Titus was quoting from an early baptismal hymn (especially in verses 4-7). Hymns such as this occur frequently throughout the Christian letters; those lyrical expressions are rich in symbolism and profound in their Christology. In the verses immediately following this short hymn, the ancient writer called it “a trustworthy saying.” It’s a saying we can carry forth with us from today’s liturgy, and one that can help us continue our training in grace all through the week ahead.

Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
In this rather understated narrative of Jesus’ baptism by John, the Lucan evangelist has clarified the respective roles and identities of John and Jesus, as well as the character of baptismal initiation. John’s role was preparatory and temporary. He offered the prelude to the promise that would be fulfilled by Jesus. As God’s beloved Son and the servant with whom God was well pleased, Jesus would exercise the role of the Christ and baptize with Spirit and fire.

After Jesus’ baptism, Luke narrated a revelatory experience in three stages. With the opening of the heavens (v. 21), Luke indirectly referenced the prayer of Trito-Isaiah, who begged God to “rend the heavens and come down” (Isa 63:19) to intervene on behalf of a sinful people. From the opened heavens, the Holy Spirit descended and remained with Jesus throughout his ministry (Luke 4:1, 14, 18). In his second volume, Luke assured his readers that the same Holy Spirit had come upon and would remain with Jesus’ followers (Acts 2:1-11). That same Spirit continues to come upon every baptized believer to enlighten every word and work with grace. Then, as if to confirm the witness of the Spirit and the opened heavens, a voice identified Jesus in terms that established his royal messiahship (Psalm 2:7) and his ministry as the beloved Servant of God (Isa 42:1).

Although some scholars attach little importance to the presence of the dove in this narrative, others insist that it is reminiscent of several references from the Hebrew scriptures. For example, a dove signaled the end of the flood and a new beginning for the primeval Noah and his companions (Gen 8:8). Just as the appearance of the dove signaled to Noah that his watery journey in the ark was taking a new turn, so the dove at Jesus’ baptism indicated that his ministry (and that of John) was about to strike out in a new direction. After his baptism, Jesus’ ministry began in earnest and John’s came to an end (Luke 3:20). The dove was sometimes featured as a symbol of the Israelites themselves (Hosea 7:11; Psalm 68:14, Song of Songs 2:14; 5:2; 6:9), and so the dove at Jesus’ baptism could be understood as a sign that God was doing something new for Israel and for the world in the person and through the mission of Jesus.

This narrative was presented in a decidedly peaceful manner. It represents only one aspect of what baptism would mean for Jesus and what it would entail for his followers. Later in the Gospel, the Lucan Jesus will declare, “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.” Jesus would also allow himself be immersed in the baptism of suffering and death. Through these saving actions, all who are baptized in Jesus’ name enter fully into his life and his death, and pass with him through the passage of death to life everlasting.