Tuesday, January 8, 2019

A New Creation begins

The Baptism of the Lord

With the renewal of the Liturgical Calendar after the Second Vatican Council, there are some strange and mysterious anomalies that have given rise to debates and controversies. Today’s feast is one of those “things.” Some commentators insist that today, the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, is the end of the season of Christmas, since this event marked the end of Jesus’ early life and the beginning of His public ministry, and since the Church recalls Our Lord's second manifestation or epiphany which occurred on the occasion of His baptism in the Jordan (tied to the first epiphany to the Magi which we celebrated last week during the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord). And yet, there are many who insist that today is the beginning of Ordinary Time, since next week is already the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, thus suggesting that this week, should be the First Sunday. Whichever position you may be partial to support, the ambivalence of situating this feast in either Christmastide or in Ordinary Time reflects the mystery of endings and beginnings. In a way, an ending can be a beginning.

The significance of the event of the Baptism of the Lord lends to this ambivalence. It is both an ending and a new beginning. The Old Creation marred by sin and the Fall of our first parents come to an end as it is plunged symbolically into the waters of the river Jordan and with the re-emergence of our Lord from the waters, He inaugurates a new creation. Yes, our Lord, the only begotten Son of God, descended into the muddy filthy waters of the Jordan to sanctify it and to give it the power to beget sons of God. The event takes on the importance of a second creation in which the entire Trinity intervenes. The readings of the day all point to this powerful rejuvenating image of a New Creation.

The First Reading is the famous passage set to music in utterly sublime fashion by G.F. Handel in the oratorio The Messiah.  These verses mark the transition in the Book of Isaiah from the prophet’s (God’s) condemnation of Israel for past sins (Isaiah 1-39) to hope for restoration in the future (Isaiah 40-66). The hope for restoration is dependent on a mysterious and highly enigmatic figure known as “the Servant.” It is clear to Christians from the earliest times, that Isaiah’s “Servant” is Jesus Christ. More than that, in today’s gospel, in the very scene of the Baptism, the voice of the Heavenly Father identifies Him as the Beloved Son. These verses help us to see the coming of Christ as the time for restoration and forgiveness. The arrival of Jesus in public marks the end of the condemnation of sin (in the ministry of John the Baptist) and the beginning of the forgiveness of sin and healing (in the ministry of Jesus).

The responsorial psalm praises God as the creator of the heavens and the earth.  The principle of creation is summarised at the end: “You send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth.” This Psalm helps us to understand the Baptism as a great manifestation of a New Creation.  Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of the first creation, so in the Gospel reading the Spirit will descend on the waters and Jesus will emerge.  Jesus is the New Creation.  He brings us into a whole new existence.  We don’t really start to live until we know Him.  This is why St. Paul can confidently claim, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation!” (2 Cor 5:17).

The second reading is a short homily, if you will, from St. Paul on baptism. Salvation has been made possible for all humanity that has been enamoured and trapped by “everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions.” It is essentially the relentless and self-destructive pursuit of money, sex, and power that we see all around us.  The New Creation is “to live good and religious lives here in this present world” because we have become “heirs looking forward to inheriting eternal life.”  It is a totally different kind of life from the ground up, because instead of desperately trying to have as much pleasure as possible before we die, we spend our lives in peace preparing for eternity.  This is the new life inaugurated by the “cleansing water of rebirth and by renewing us with the Holy Spirit which He has so generously poured over us through Jesus Christ our Saviour.”

In the gospel, the description of the scene of the Baptism is deliberately meant to be an allusion to the creation in the Book of Genesis – “heaven opened”, “Holy Spirit descended” all evokes the image of the Spirit “hovering” over the waters of creation. Then just as the original work of creation begins with God breaking His silence, the Father breaks His silence and speaks these words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.” The “beloved” son is an allusion to the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Jesus is the New Isaac, the Beloved Son who will sacrifice himself on the holy mountain of Calvary. St Paul tells us in the second reading that the new Isaac “sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be his very own and would have no ambition except to do good.”

The words “You are my Son” recalls the royal coronation hymn of David found in Psalm 2:7. It is an affirmation of the Davidic covenant, by which each heir to the throne had the privilege of a filial (sonship) relationship with God: “I will be his father, and he will be my son.”  This echo implies that Jesus is the Son of David, the heir to the throne of Israel.  In fact, the baptism comprises of the washing and anointing ceremony by which each Son of David marked the beginning of his reign (see 1 Kings 1:38-40).  Note that in most of the Gospels, shortly after the Baptism, Jesus begins to preach “The Kingdom of God has arrived.”  Indeed, because He has begun His royal reign.

In this great Epiphany of Christ, or as the Eastern Christians would call it, “the Great Theophany”, the great manifestation of God, the Most Holy Trinity, Jesus is introduced as the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament expectation: He is Isaiah’s Servant, the new Isaac, the new David.  But especially in today’s reading, He is the manifestation of the New Creation.

In submitting Himself humbly to the baptism of St. John the Baptist, however, Christ provided the example for the rest of us. If even He should be baptised, though He had no need of it, how much more should the rest of us be thankful for this sacrament, which frees us from the darkness of sin and incorporates us into the Church, the life of Christ on earth! His Baptism, therefore, was necessary--not for Him, but for us.

Baptism is indeed the New Creation, the first stage of the resurrection: immersed in God, we are already immersed in the indestructible life of God, the resurrection begins. Through baptism we have truly been incorporated into a New Creation, a new life and way of existence.  However, it takes faith to experience this.  If we do not believe the truth of what has happened in our baptism, the reality remains true, but we do not experience the fruits of that reality.  In our prayer this Sunday, let’s meditate on the reality of the gift of the Spirit which renewed each one of us in the sacrament.  If necessary, let’s renew the sacrament of Baptism by going regularly for confession.  And finally, let’s remember that the New Creation is the world to come, the fullness of life that we will experience after the death of this earthly body.  If we are still living day by day for pleasure, for money, sex, and power, we are actively undoing what Christ has done for us in baptism.

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