In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last Monday was the feast of the Epiphany, during which we recalled the wise men coming from the East to worship the newborn King. The word “epiphany” comes from Greek, and means a revelation. The feast of the Epiphany thus celebrates a revelation – namely, the revelation of the infant Jesus as the Messiah, the King of the Jews, the one foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament, who was to come and save God’s people. It is this hitherto hidden identity of Jesus that is “revealed” to the wise men; this is the “epiphany.” Pope Benedict writes: “All of [the] Old Testament texts envisage a saving intervention of God, who emerges from his hiddenness to judge and to save; it is for this God that the door is to be opened and the way made ready.” The Epiphany is the beginning of God’s emergence from his hiddenness.
And according to the Gospels, it is the special vocation of St. John the Baptist to be, as it were, the door-keeper, the one who makes ready the way for the revelation of God to his people. Which brings us to today’s Gospel and its recounting of the baptism of Jesus. Indeed, among Eastern Christians, the Baptism of Jesus is the central theme of Epiphany. This is due to the fact that the Lord’s Baptism is in fact another “revelation” of his identity, another “epiphany.” Just as when it was revealed to the wise men that the infant Jesus was “he who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2.2), so at his baptism, the adult Jesus is revealed by “a voice from heaven” to be “my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” (Matthew 3.17).
We might first notice TO WHOM this revelation of the identity of Jesus is made at his Baptism. Who was there? Who heard the voice? The Gospels are unambiguous on this point. Great crowds of people from “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan” (Matthew 3.5) had come to John for baptism. And Matthew says, “they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins,” (3.6). It is this crowd of penitent seekers to whom the voice from heaven addresses itself, bearing witness to Jesus as the beloved and well-pleasing Son of God.
Already there is a message here for us. If you want to deepen your knowledge and love of the Lord, if you want to know who Jesus is, you need to understand that heaven addresses itself on point to the baptized who confess their sins. Most, if not all, of us here today have received the sacrament of Baptism. But if your growth in Christ seems to have stalled or plateaued, you would do well to ask yourself how serious you are about confessing your sins. When was the last time you made your confession? Have you EVER made your confession? Do you have a habit of regularly and prayerfully examining your conscience against the standard of the Gospel? A real and intimate acquaintance with Jesus, as a living person, is possible. But confessing your sins is a prerequisite. And, sadly, very often pride or shame or sloth stands in the way. People, even Christians, maybe even ESPECIALLY Christians, can go through life, and go through the motions of religiousness, with a stagnate faith. And the great danger is that such people can eventually give up the quest altogether, because they remain stalled, because, in turn, of an impenitence underwritten by pride or shame or sloth or whatever.
But what else does the Baptism of our Lord reveal? What are the other contours of this epiphany? Apropos of repentance, Baptism symbolizes death and new life. Again, Pope Benedict says:
On one hand, immersion into the waters is a symbol of death, which recalls the death symbolism of the annihilating, destructive power of the ocean flood. The ancient mind perceived the ocean as a permanent threat to the cosmos, to the earth; it was the primeval flood that might submerge all life. The river (Jordan) could also assume this symbolic value for those who were immersed in it. But the flowing waters of the river are above all a symbol of life. The great rivers – the Nile, the Euphrates, the Tigris – are the great givers of life. The Jordan, too, is – even today – a source of life for the surrounding region. Immersion in the water is about purification, about liberation form the filth of the past that burdens and distorts life – it is about beginning again, and that means it is about death and resurrection, about starting life over again anew. (Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, p. 16)
Which leads us inexorably to the question of why Jesus was baptized. “How could he confess sins? How could he separate himself from his previous life in order to start a new one?” (Benedict, 16-17). This is a natural question arising from the details of the Biblical narrative and from what our faith teaches us about the person of Jesus who is supposed to have been without sin, the immaculate Lamb of God. This quandary about what it could mean for Jesus to seek baptism from John is anticipated in the text of the Gospel, in the question that John asks Jesus when he presents himself. John says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3.14). And likewise the solution lies in Jesus’ response. Jesus says to John, “‘Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented,” (3.15).
Again, Pope Benedict:
This is a specific, temporary situation that calls for a specific way of acting. The key to interpreting Jesus’ answer is how we understand the word righteousness. The whole of righteousness must be fulfilled. In Jesus’ world, righteousness is man’s answer to the Torah, acceptance of the whole of God’s will, the bearing of the ‘yoke of God’s kingdom,’ as one formulation had it. There is no provision for John’s baptism in the Torah, but this reply of Jesus is his way of acknowledging it as an expression of an unrestricted Yes to God’s will, as an obedient acceptance of his yoke,” (Benedict, 17).
…. In a world marked by sin, then, this Yes to the entire will of God also expresses solidarity with men, who have incurred guilt but yearn for righteousness.
This fulfillment of all righteousness thus anticipates Jesus’ ultimate Yes to the will of his Father during his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night that he was betrayed: “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done,” (Luke 22.42). “[T]hus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
And here we come to the import of Jesus’ baptism that I would like to highlight today: Jesus’ fulfillment of all righteousness by stepping into the place of sinful, penitent humanity, his solidarity with all mankind. It is this identification of Jesus with us, in his Baptism, and above all in his death and resurrection, that is the material condition for the efficacy of our repentance and our being baptized in his Name. In other words, because Jesus assumed our sinful humanity, because he came among us and became “one of us,” now when we are baptized, and when we practice repentance, we receive this identity with him. It becomes possible thereby that we may be “made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”
Abiding thus in the Son of God, by means of Baptism and repentance, by means of ongoing conversion, of PRACTICING throughout your life the identity with Jesus that he has established – this is brings your estrangement from God to an end. It means hearing the voice from heaven speaking now in reference to YOU: “THIS is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.