Deacon Cornell’s Homily


Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Acts 10:34-38
Matthew 3:13-17


January 11-12, 2014, Baptism of the Lord, Cycle A

Today's feast of the Baptism of the Lord has a long and varied history. In the early church, and continued by the Eastern churches, the feast of the Epiphany celebrated 3 distinct manifestations (showings) of Jesus: the visit of the Magi, his Baptism by John, and the miracle at the wedding in Cana. These celebrations separated in the West and only recently was the Baptism of Our Lord returned to its linking to the Magi by being celebrated the Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany.

From the very beginning of the church the baptism of Jesus by John was a problem. As I mentioned back in December, there was an active tension between the disciples of John the Baptist and those of Jesus even after the resurrection. Some saw Jesus' baptism as proof that John was more important. Some commentators explain Matthew's addition of the dialog between Jesus and John we just heard as an attempt by Matthew to show that Jesus allowed himself to be baptized by John even though he was the one whose sandals John was not worthy to untie. Rather than get into that competition between the Baptist's followers and Jesus' followers, I would suggest that we look at today's feast in terms of how it challenges us, as Catholics in the church of Boston in 2014.

One of the questions I ask the parents who bring their children for baptism is to tell me what the water of baptism symbolizes or represents. Without exception over the last 20+ years, after a little thought, the parents say that it symbolizes the cleansing of sin that happens in baptism. And of course they are right. But that is not the primary symbolism of the water. If you listen the prayer that is said during the blessing of the water, you hear a list of many different ways that God has used water in our salvation history: from the churning of the waters at creation, to the waters of the Red Sea at the Exodus, to the water and blood that flowed from Jesus' side as he died on the cross. And all of those enter into the mystery of baptism. But one of the lessons we learn from the Baptism of Our Lord is that the primary symbolism in baptism cannot be the cleansing of sin because Jesus had no sin. In the instruction at the start of the baptismal rite, the Church points out that the water symbolizes our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. In other words the water represents the tomb of Christ. We go down into the tomb to die to our false self so that we might rise again in new life in Christ. We put on the white baptismal gown after coming out of the water which represents putting on Christ so that we now live as Christ lives.

Jesus is baptized before he starts his public ministry. Mark's gospel more clearly pictures the baptism as Jesus call to be obedient to his Father's mission by having the voice address Jesus directly: You are my son, my beloved. In you I am well pleased. Matthew's account stresses the manifestation of Jesus relation to the Father by having the voice address the crowd: This is my son, my beloved. To me the challenging part of this is not that Jesus reveals or manifests his divinity but that he reveals his humanity, and by extension he challenges me to understand what it means to be truly human. To be human means to recognize the reality that I am a sinner, as Pope Francis identifies himself. That reality is not my destiny however. Jesus is fully human but without sin. That is our destiny. To remain human but to be saved from our sin, cleansed from our sin. What the Baptism of Our Lord reveals is that to be saved we must respond to the Father's call to mission as Jesus does. We must participate in Christ's death and resurrection, with the emphasis on participate. We are not to be spectators but participants.

We came up out of the waters of baptism, and as you have seen with baptism after baptism, we are immediately anointed (Christened) as priest, prophet and king, the roles we take on as we participate in Christ's mission. Jesus headed out to the desert after his baptism to reflect on that mission and to prepare himself. Now we are called on to do the same. Have I really spent any serious time and focus on discerning how God is calling me to participate in God's mission to save the world? Do I continue to prepare myself to participate effectively? I mean I can discern that God's plan for me is to be a deacon, to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. But if I don't continue to prepare myself for that role what good is my being a deacon?

We are entering a new phase of being Catholic in this Archdiocese and more immediately in this collaborative. This will require that each one of us actively participate in the mission of evangelization, bringing the Gospel to those around us. We can have no pretensions that this is the work of the clergy or religious or some select few. If it is to succeed, it will require all the baptized. God has spoken to us in our baptism, calling us his beloved son or daughter. He now calls us to live out that baptismal vocation as the priest, prophet, and king that we are anointed to be. We are called to be 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. Not symbolically but really.
Now excuse me. I have to go find a desert.

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