by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the idente missionaries
Madrid, January 12, 2020, Baptism of the Lord.
Book of Isaiah 42: 1-4.6-7; Acts of the Apostles 10: 34-38; Saint Matthew 3: 13-17.
John the Baptist performed a baptism that was a preparation for Christian Baptism through which sins are forgiven and the Holy Spirit is received. The Baptism of Jesus is considered a manifestation of God in Jesus, another epiphany. On this last day of Christmas season, the Gospel reveals to us Jesus’ relation to God: the son of Mary and Joseph is also God’s own Son.
The baptism of Jesus took place “where John was baptizing” (Jn 1:28), that is one of the lowest point on earth (400m below sea level). This is already meaningful: He went down into a deep abyss to show that he desires the salvation of every person, including those who have lost all hope of emerging from the abyss of emptiness and meaninglessness into which they have fallen.
A very instructive lesson can be drawn from the classic question: Why did Christ ask to be baptized? Did He therefore confess himself a sinner? We can answer this question with St. Jerome:
For a threefold reason the Savior was baptized by John. First, because being born man like others, He must respect the law with justice and humility. Second, to demonstrate with his baptism the effectiveness of John’s baptism. Third to show, by sanctifying the waters of Jordan through the descent of the dove, the advent of the Holy Spirit in the washing of the believers (Commentary on Matthew 1, 3, 13). This act of extraordinary humility was dictated by the wish to establish a full communion with each one of us, and by the desire to achieve genuine solidarity with us in our human condition.
It is evident and clear that Christ did not need Baptism, just as He did not need the Cross. Ultimately, the whole mystery of Christ in the world can be summed up by the word, “baptism”, which in Greek means immersion. The Son of God, who from eternity shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit the fullness of life, was immersed in our reality of sinners to make us participating in his own life. He became man, was born like us, grew up like us and, on reaching adulthood, manifested his mission which began precisely with the “baptism of conversion” administered by John the Baptist. His first public act, as the Gospels tell us, was to go down to the Jordan, mingling among repentant sinners, to receive baptism.
For those who authentically desire to do good to others, to be an apostle and imitator of Christ, this is highly significant: Truly, with prayer and fasting, we have to immerse ourselves in the life of our neighbor to help him reach God.
A night in June 1980 Pope John Paul II attended a youth rally in Paris. The rally was supposed to go for one hour, but lasted three. At the end of the rally, as the Pope was leaving the stage and the young people were cheering, a single voice rang out from the darkness of the crowd: ‘Pope John Paul! Pope John Paul! I am an atheist! what is faith?’
The story goes on: The Pope insisted that the youth be tracked down, and, improbable though it may seem, he was found by some priests who studied photographs of the event and who managed to meet the young man some months later. They told him the Pope was concerned about him, was praying for him, and was sorry he had not been able to give him an immediate answer to his question. The young man replied that he had been so moved by the visit of the Pope that, immediately after the rally, he had gone to a bookstore and bought a new testament, had read it carefully, and was now taking instructions in the catholic faith. ‘Tell the Pope,’ he said, ‘that soon I will receive baptism’.
Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est that being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. As the above story shows, Saint John Paul II certainly sought to immerse himself in the suffering and dreams of many people to provoke in them the necessary encounter with Christ.
We must not forget that all the Sacraments use signs and actions of very clear meaning in all the cultures: water, oil, union of man and woman, food, …Through the symbol of water, Jesus saves us from our sins by His death and resurrection, since baptism is a call to being immersed in the water and to rise up a new person. Baptism is a commitment to die to our old selves and rise to a new life in Christ.
In this regard, I always remember with emotion the story of Pilar Rielo, our Founder’s sister, when she was serving as a nurse in Libya, a predominantly Muslim country. When she attended to women in childbirth, she always sought ways to secretly baptize the newborn, regardless of the danger this posed to her. She was consistent with what she had understood since she was a girl, the value of Baptism as the origin of many graces received by those who are baptized through the Church, thanks to the one who administers this Sacrament.
In Christ’s time many religious sects practiced baptism. Among other meanings, one was especially important: the immersion signified the death of the individual and getting back out of the water means the birth of a new person to whom a new name was given. John baptized whoever decided to change his life to prepare oneself for the coming of the Messiah which was announced as imminent.
Because many of us hardly meditate on the Word of God, we are not directed in our lives by the Spirit of Christ but by the spirit of the world. Because we do not prepare ourselves properly to participate in the Eucharist, our unity with those close to us is fragile, dependent on their response and our mood and our link with the Church is weak. After baptism, we must make full use of the means to sanctification provided by the Church of Christ mainly the Word of God, the Eucharist, and prayer.
The fact that many of us are not living up to our baptismal obligations means that we are not conscious of their meaning and open to the implications of our baptism.
1. The Gospel states that the heavens were opened.
This alludes to Chapter 64 of the book of Isaiah. In the last centuries before Christ, the people of Israel had the feeling that heaven was closed. Outraged by the sins of his people, God had stopped sending prophets and seemed to have broken all dialogue. The Israelites were wondering: when will this distressing silence end?
Saint Matthew is now saying that God has opened heaven and will never close it again. The enmity between heaven and earth is forever ended. Not only that, the door of the house of the Father will remain eternally wide open to welcome every child who wishes to enter. No one will be excluded, as the First Reading states.
This should make us consider at least two questions:
– Sometimes we think, or say, that God has forgotten us or that He does not answer our prayer. Is this compatible with what St. Matthew tells us, stating that the heavens are always open to everyone?
– Do I really believe that all the people who come to me are hungry and in need of God, despite their words and deeds seem to suggest otherwise?
2. Saint Matthew says that the Holy Spirit came on Jesus like a dove.
In this moment of the Gospel, we can understand with special clarity what our relationship with the Divine Persons is:
Our Heavenly Father continually makes his will known to us, just as He did with Jesus.
Christ is the model of the fulfillment of that will, and the Father confirms it by saying: I am pleased with Him. We read this expression in the today’s first verse of Isaiah. God declares that Jesus is the Servant of whom the prophet spoke 500 years before the birth of Jesus. He is the one sent to establish the law and justice in the world. To fulfill this mission, he will offer his life. This role of authentic way and model was explicitly declared by God the Father on the occasion of the Transfiguration: This is my Son, and I love him. Listen to what he says! (Mk 9: 7)
The Holy Spirit, as Christ had announced, reminds us of the concrete and precise way to carry out that divine will, which is why when reciting the Creed, we state: We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, leading us into the very heart of God. The dove was the symbol of attachment to its nest. The evangelist wants to tell us the Spirit seeks Jesus as a dove seeks its nest. Jesus is the temple where the Spirit finds its home… and we have been granted the same grace. This is how we are constituted by the three divine persons. In the words of our Founding Father:
Belief, expectation and love are constitutive virtues in all human beings in virtue of the divine constitutive presence of the Absolute that defines us; on the contrary, faith, hope and charity are respectively, belief, expectation and love elevated to the sanctifying order by the redemption of Christ in baptism (Mystical Conception of Anthropology).
The Holy Spirit is given to us not just to build our personal faith but also to be His witnesses in the world by our words and deeds, drawing others to the God as we grow in our faith and love for Him.
This explains why our Father Founder tells us that the Apostolic Vow is a form of union (vinculum), not just an activity. Christ was always aware, but especially at his Baptism, of his divine filiation. And this experience enabled Him to go about proclaiming the love of His Father. This is what happens to us. Especially when we meet a person who impacts us, we immediately communicate it and share it with others. Thus begins the act of the apostle, with this intimate and truly continuous experience.
It is the Holy Spirit living in us that makes us children of God, sons and daughters of God, loved and empowered by Him. This was the experience of Jesus. It is only this consciousness of our divine filiation, our divine sonship, that propels us to carry out the mission of proclaiming our Father’s unconditional love and mercy. We are chosen for service. The kings and the prophets in the Old Testament were considered the anointed ones of God. Even today, the Pope and the bishops wear a skullcap as a sign that they have been chosen by God for a special office, as well as all the baptized, to bring the Good News to the world with our humble but constant acts of service.
In the midst of that fight, we have two privileges, truly mystical: the experience of being able to resist the temptations of the evil one and the awareness that the divine persons are at our side, with many forms of presence.
Hopefully, at the end of each day, our heavenly Father will be able to say about each of us: This is my son (daughter), the beloved; my favor rests on him (her).