The Baptism of Jesus: A Pivotal Moment for Us and the Nation
This has been a tumultuous week in America. January 6, 2021 will remain etched in the annals of American history as a day of shame and revulsion. Americans, and indeed the world, witnessed scenes of lawlessness and anarchy unprecedented in the history of the nation. Motivated by the conviction to overturn what they considered a fraudulent election, thousands of rioters overpowered law enforcement officials, unseated the legitimately elected representatives on Capitol Hill and vandalized the very seat of American democracy! Thus far, five people have been killed, including a police officer who was merely carrying out his civic duty. The entire nation has yet to come to terms with this pivotal and previously unimaginable moment in American political history.
We are celebrating the feast of the Baptism of Jesus only days after this appalling national event. Although the baptism of Jesus took place two thousand years before the events of January 6, and the connection between the two events is remote, it would be absurd to reflect on the baptism of Jesus without making any reference to the state of our nation. On this feast day there are lessons to be learned, hope to be salvaged, and a mission to be accomplished.
The history of every nation and the life of every person reveal pivotal moments. The American War of Independence, the Civil War, universal suffrage, the Civil Rights Act, the Vietnam War, and the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center are pivotal events of American history. And now we add January 6.
Pivotal events are the edifice of human life as well. Birth, milestones birthdays, wedding, birth of children, illnesses, and even tragedies become pivotal moments in our lives. This is true of Jesus’ life as well. The Nativity, the Epiphany, and the Baptism of Jesus are pivotal moments that preceded his ministry. No other event defined the life and ministry of Jesus more than his baptism. It was his baptism that separated his private life from his public ministry. It was his baptism that set him on the road to accomplish the mission of human redemption. The rest is history.
Perhaps because many of us were baptized as infants and later confirmed as adolescents, we do not recall these experiences as pivotal moments. The feast of the baptism of Jesus provides us the opportunity to reflect on the pivotal event that our baptism should be. As we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, we must reflect on our baptism as the pivotal moment that impacts the rest of our life.
Our baptism unites us with the identity, the life, and the mission of Jesus Christ. For that reason, our life must be lived as a continuation of the life of Christ. Especially as our nation stands at a very pivotal point in its history, we who are baptized have a mission: the mission to bring healing to our nation and transform it into a nation that nurtures life, radiates compassion, and ensures justice and peace.
As I mentioned earlier, Jesus’ pivotal moment at his baptism launched him into his mission. In today’s first reading from Isaiah, the messianic mission is clearly laid out. Isaiah says, “he shall bring forth justice to the nations” (Is 42: 1). Later in the passage, the messianic is once more described as a mission of justice. Isaiah says, “I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice” (Is 42:6). Justice is not an abstract virtue in the Christian scripture. It is expressed in very concrete images. Isaiah expresses it in these words: “I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness” (Is 42:6-7). The messianic mission was to bring forth justice to the nations.
After his baptism, when Jesus began his ministry, he began the task of accomplishing the messianic mission. He did this in two ways. First, led by the Spirit into the desert, Jesus rejected those things that could become an obstacle to his messianic mission. He overcame the temptation to power, fame, and glory. Second, immediately after emerging from the desert, he confirmed his messianic mission in the very words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Lk 4: 18-19).
Before he went forth on his mission, Jesus first rejected the trappings of power, fame, and glory, and having rejected those things that could become obstacles to the cause of justice to the nations, he unleashed a mission of tenderness, justice, mercy, and love. He proclaimed liberty for those burdened by false religiosity and taught them that true religion lay in the unconditional love of God and genuine love of neighbor. He gave sight to the blind, healed the sick, raised the dead, and revealed the power of humility, gentleness, self-sacrifice and love. Ultimately, his own life became the surest sign of God’s kingdom and the justice of the nations. It was his baptism that became the pivotal moment that launched the revolution of love.
The word “revolution” was heard this week, as lawless people stormed Capitol Hill. The mission of these men and women stands in stark contrast to the mission that Jesus began. The mission of those who stormed the capitol was to usurp power though violence and anarchy, and through destruction of life and public property. Jesus’ mission, in contrast, was a life-giving mission—a mission of building-up and restoring, a mission of compassion and peace, a mission of self-sacrifice and love, a mission of justice to the nations.
As people who share in the baptism of Jesus, we must also share in the mission of Jesus. The celebration of the feast of the Baptism of Jesus provides us the opportunity to renew our baptismal commitment and dedicate our life to mission that our baptism entrusts to us. Our nation and our lives stand at a pivotal moment. My hope is that we can join hands with Jesus and fulfill our baptismal mission in the very way Jesus fulfilled his mission.
Nationhood and Justice
The theme of nationhood and justice is further emphasized in today’s second reading. In Peter’s speech, he emphasizes the equality of Jews and Gentiles, proclaiming: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34). The context of Peter’s proclamation was the Jewish rejection of the way in which Christians accepted Gentiles into the fold.
In the events that unfolded in our nation’s capital, rioters and domestic terrorists, many of them racists and white supremacists, were motivated by a desire to grab power, which led to the violence and mayhem. Sadly, some people in our nation see themselves as more equal than others, more privileged than others. Our baptism proclaims a different story. At his baptism, Jesus was declared, “My beloved Son!” This has implications. We who share in the baptism of Jesus are all invited to share not only his mission but also his identity and especially his divine filiation.
People of every race, every nation, every language are God’s children. For indeed, as Peter says, “God shows no partiality!” Rather, in every nation—including the United States of America—whoever acts uprightly or justly is acceptable to God. Racism is injustice and is therefore the opposite of uprightness. Racism suggest that God is partial; that God accepts race and has a different standard for others; that we are not all the children of God. Racism suggest that God did not create all people equal; that God loves some more than others.
As a baptized people and as a people who are at a pivotal point in our nation we must—like God—show no partiality. We must act uprightly. This is not merely a national responsibility, but a call that is ours by virtue of our baptism. To build an egalitarian nation; to build a nation which has as its foundation in liberty, justice, and peace; to build a nation that has as it bulwark humility, compassion, and goodwill; to build a nation that cares for God’s earth, defends life, and strives for the common good—this should be the mission of the baptized people of God. Our baptism into Christ’s very baptism demands this from us.
Both the events in our nation and our baptism are pivotal moments. Today, let us commit ourselves, like Jesus, to accomplish the mission that is given to us by our baptism. In this way, our celebration of the feast of the baptism of Christ will not be mere lip service, but an actual living out of the implications of Christ’s baptism and ours.