Baptism of the Lord
Preached January 13, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Last Sunday, in the celebration of the Epiphany, the infant Jesus, the Son of God, was revealed as a light shining to the nations. Today, the celebration of Epiphany is brought to completion in the celebration of the Lord’s baptism.
Now we see Jesus already as an adult, stepping out into the world, stepping into the waters of baptism, sanctifying the waters of baptism. Through baptism the light of Christ does not just shine on us outwardly, but begins to transform us interiorly, making us to become children of God. Baptism is but a beginning, the beginning of right religion, the beginning of our “training” as children of God.
The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.
I want to say something about what it means to reject godless ways because we might readily deceive ourselves thinking that ‘godless ways’ refers only to the way of life of horrible criminals, murderers, rapists, or maybe those who seek power and wealth for themselves by way of corruption and crime and at the expense of others.
We might think that men of ‘godless ways’ would be those people who don’t even mean well. We forget the old proverb, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Godless ways might be ‘well-meaning’, as far as they go, but they are devoid of a right order towards God himself. They might be well-meaning, but because of the fundamental disorder that comes from separation from God, they end up wreaking havoc and destruction.
Let me give an example. Some years ago I remember seeing a news item about some well-known and wealthy computer man who had the brilliant idea of getting tablet computers into the hands of poor third world families. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Well, pretty much everything. It starts with an attitude of superiority that says, “We are better than others and our way of life is better than others because of our wealth, prosperity, and technological know how.” Then it decides that what we have decided is good for us will also be good for poor families in the third world, without taking into consideration their existing way of life, their cultural values, and the web of human relationships in which they live. So at best it ends by raising material standards of living, while radically disrupting family life, eroding the respect that children have for their parents, and keeping the younger generations from receiving a cultural inheritance that has been passed on for centuries. The intention was good, but the effect deadens the soul.
We make the mistake of thinking of evil as being a positive reality when evil is fundamentally nothing other than a lack of due order, or to put it more simply, disorder. That disorder can be something so radical as one person ranking his own wealth and power above the very life of another, but it can also mean the elevation of something good, without consideration of any higher order.
We face today the general disorder that results from a prioritization of measurable material realities, such as economic prosperity, above more intangible goods. Above all, we think that we can achieve success and happiness without God.
The reason for this is that while, to some extent, we still allow individuals to search for God, to put a priority on God their lives, to practice private religion, we have completely despaired of the possibility of any common agreement about God and the right way to approach him, the practice of right religion. So in our despair we have sought to console ourselves with the illusion that the question isn’t really important. It doesn’t matter what you believe, only what you do, as though the two had no relation to each other.
Actually, though, the question of right religion is of central importance because without the right order to God, everything else falls into disarray. That is the root cause of the social disintegration we see going on around us.
We must reject ‘godless ways’, that is every path that departs from the divine order, and so live temperately (that refers to the right order within an individual person), justly (the right order in human relations), and devoutly (the right order in relation to God) in this age.
That supreme order in relation to God puts the whole of this life into a particular perspective. The supreme order in relation to God shows us that this life, this world, is not a final home, not a destination, but a path, a pilgrimage.
How we evaluate and rank the different goods that we can pursue in this world will be completely different if we regard this world as a home, with no goal beyond itself, or if we regard life in this world as a pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem.
The supreme order in relation to God also provides us the highest source and origin of action.
So now, finally, we can turn to today’s Gospel and what is revealed to us in Jesus’ baptism. Jesus did not need to be baptized and he did not need the voice from heaven to make known to him that he was the Son of God. Everything he does as man is for “us men and our salvation”, everything is for the purpose of restoring right order to human life. Jesus is revealing to us who he is, but he is also sanctifying the waters of baptism, revealing to us what we become in him through baptism, and also giving us the example and the power to live as he did.
In today’s Gospel St. Luke gives us one key detail that the other evangelists omit. After coming up out of the water Jesus is praying. The opening up of heaven, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the voice from heaven all follow upon Jesus’ prayer.
Jesus’ prayer teaches us to pray. This is not the sort of prayer by which we ask God to fulfill our desires; this is prayer that is rooted in adoration, by which we place ourselves at God’s disposal, without reserve and without condition, saying simply “Here I am, Lord.”
Jesus’ prayer teaches us that the supreme order to God is achieved in prayer. Prayer must be the source of action, otherwise we will be missing that supreme order and all of our actions will fall into disorder. Jesus’ prayer teaches us that the life of prayer must be the first consequence of our baptism, the first way in which we begin to live from the gift we have received in baptism. Jesus’ prayer teaches us that through prayer we open ourselves to the action of the Holy Spirit and that the Holy Spirit, above all teaches us that we are children of God, teaches us what it means to be children of God. Through prayer we most truly come to discover the reality of the Father’s love for us. Through the Holy Spirit we can come to hear the voice of the Father speaking to us, saying, You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.
This discovery of our true identity in Christ, received through baptism, is what opens us to the action of the Holy Spirit, who through the working of his grace puts all things in right order, training us to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this life as we make our pilgrim way to the fulfillment of God’s promise in eternal life.