8th Jan 23, The Baptism of the Lord
I’m sure some of us over Christmas got to enjoy a board game or two and I hope that included that most famous of board games, snakes and ladders. If we were to think of it as analogy of life we would, I am sure, pray that there are more ladders in our life than snakes. Ladders, especially, in the game fit well with our desire for things to improve, for us to be better, for someone we love dearly to be in a better situation, whatever it might be. The flip side of this is we all know that sense I guess of being on a snake in life, where things are deteriorating and part of the image of the snake surely is the sense of powerlessness: we’re just sliding down and there’s nothing we can do to climb back up if that’s the square we’ve landed on.
Now, I hope we realise life isn’t actually life that because we’re beautifully made in the image of God and destined for still greater things if we accept His invitation to follow Him faithfully. Part of the wonder of being made in the image of God is we get to make decisions and not to be imprisoned by fate or circumstance or external pressures. I know it doesn’t always feel like this.
Anyway, with the snake and ladder image in mind we assume going up is good and going down is bad. We all hoped, I am sure, when we gathered here last Saturday evening and Sunday morning that 2023 will have more ladders - more upward movements - than snakes - those downward movements. However, my friends, one thing we will notice about the activity of God, His call to us and especially as we consider today the Baptism of the Lord, is that God’s action is downward and indeed sometimes we are called to go downwards too and that’s what I just want to spend some time thinking about, those downward movements of God and how this is a model for us.
First, then let’s look at today’s Feast, being the Sunday after the Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord. We’ve made a huge leap in the liturgical year from our Lord being a toddler and worshiped by the Wise Men to the beginning of the Lord’s public ministry when he was thirty years old. Today in some senses concludes the Christmas season in that we return to Ordinary tide and green vestments tomorrow. We’ve been celebrating for two weeks in some sense the most important coming down God makes for us, He comes down to Heaven for us, emptying Himself, assuming the condition of a slave, as St Paul reflects in his letter to the Philippians (2:6-7).
And as the celebrations of our Lord’s birth conclude for another year we see Him going down yet further. The word “baptism” comes from the Greek for, among other things to do with liquid, plunge. There is a going down here too. It’s not terribly clear whether our Lord was immersed under the water or not and it’s not important either way: even if He wasn’t immersed within the water He would have gone down the banks into the river if only to be sprinkled. But the going down image is there. Hence St Paul could speak of the baptism of Christians as being like burial: “we have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead … so we too might walk in newness of life,” (Romans 6:4).
There’s a vivid image for us as to what happened at our Baptism. But note that it is not dependent on us being plunged into the water. When I was baptised I was three months old and water was sprinkled on me. This is sufficient because the water is the means of God’s grace. God’s grace is not dependent on the quality of the water: we don’t have to use Evian or Jordan water for the baptism to work. Nor is God dependent on the amount of water, we are not worshipping some strange water god, nor do we believe there is special power in the water and therefore we should have lots of of it. Baptism is a Sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward spiritual grace. Do not, then my friends, be led astray by those who say we need to be fully immersed for Baptism to work. The power to regenerate a fallen humanity is not in the water but in God alone, be there drip or flood.
This descent of God should not surprise us. God is indeed higher than high (as the song goes), indeed His thoughts are higher than our thoughts and His ways higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). And yet it belongs to His generous nature to descend to form the world and humanity at the dawn of time. And the nature of the God who is above all other gods is that He doesn’t just wind up the toy of creation and stand back and watch it go, He is constantly involved in our affairs, interested in what is happening, and journeying alongside us. We see this as God promises to Moses to go before His people fleeing Pharaoh’s yoke as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21). We see this again as centuries later Solomon seeks the consecration of the Temple in Jerusalem and we’re told the Lord fills it with His presence (II Chronicles 7:1).
These qualities of God and His divine activity of going down do not cease with the Lord’s Birth and Baptism for we see it in the events of Holy Saturday, the day in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. After the Lord’s death on the Cross, the Church teaches us that He descends into hell and harrows it (Ephesians 4:9), showing His victory over sin and death is total throughout time as well as across the world. This is referenced by St Peter in his first letter when he speaks of “the gospel being proclaimed even to the dead, so that … they might live in the spirit,” (I Peter 4:6). The Lord of life and holiness condescends even to go to hell that those who who had lived before the Lord’s birth might hear the Gospel preached. Isn’t that wonderful? Great is God’s love for sinners.
This descending quality of God is seen again some fifty days later when, having ascended into Heaven God the Father and God the Son send the Holy Spirit on the Apostles in the form of fire. The gifts of the Holy Spirit equip them to build up the Church of God and transform the terror-filled rabble in to the most effective missionary force the world has ever seen. This same Holy Spirit is prefigured in today’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord: the dove coming down on the Lord is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, as of old when such a bird brought Noah an olive branch showing humanity that the waters of the flood had indeed begun to recede (Genesis 8:6-12).
It is only because God longs to be among us that we can have confidence when we gather for Mass that the same Holy Spirit descending like the dew will transform Bread and Wine offered on the altar into the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We must always marvel at so great a gift through which the Church is fed; but it ought not surprise us, this is what we know to be true of God who is constantly willing to descend and to be be among His people.
So, it is part of God’s inclination to be among those whom He has created and redeemed. He descends to create, to lead the Hebrews away from Pharoah’s tyranny, to fill the Temple that place of worship and sacrifice in Jerusalem. God is born for us, descends even to the depths of Hades, and then having ascended to the Heavens sends us His Holy Spirit. And not only are we to gaze in wonder at this, but we are to be imitators of Him. When St Paul draws our attention to the Lord Jesus who humbles Himself for us he begins by saying to us, “Let the same mind be in you,” (Philippians 2:5).
How then are we to have this humility within us? St John the Baptist gives us a great example in today’s Gospel. For with the best of intentions He says to Jesus that Jesus should baptise him and not vice versa. Jesus’ reply immediately puts John the Baptist at ease while continuing His divine mission: “Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands.” Jesus doesn’t just say, “Do as I tell you,” He explains in all calmness why it needs to be so. There will be times when our decisions with even the best of intentions are found to be not what God wants. We need to have the grace to change those plans and to re-submit ourselves to the Lord. Planned acts of kindness, family commitments, work commitments can often in particular fit in to this category when it is with the greatest kindness we hope to do certain things but it is just not what God’s purposes require of us.
And finally, humility in us will mean we’re willing to humble ourselves for the benefit of others, cleaning the floor even when it’s not really our job, picking something up for someone else even when it might mean our back creaks a bit, keeping still so that others can pray, offering words of encouragement even when we’re not sure we have time for a proper conversation. Our vocation as the baptised, my friends, is to follow the Lord Jesus and to let his lift dwell within us, His life of humility and obedience to the Father. May His inclination to lower Himself for us be our inspiration, that we may be raised by His grace.