Jesus' Baptism and Ours

It's kind of a magical mystical moment, the baptism of Jesus. After he's baptized, the Holy Spirit descends upon him and God says to him, "You are my beloved, my son, in whom I am well pleased." But there is a lot that has gone before it, and, as we will see in Lent and Eastertide, a lot that comes after it. The baptism is the pivotal moment when Jesus' life shifts from the private to the public sphere. All his life so far has been leading up to this moment.

His previous life is shrouded in mystery, but we can surmise what it might have been like. We know all the marvelous stories about his birth, but we can see that they might have been greeted by the neighbors in Nazareth with what they would have called a healthy skepticism. In fact, from the stories of what happened when he visited Nazareth during his ministry, he was greeted with skepticism. There were stories about his father not being Joseph, but God. They would also have remembered a certain fuss, a hurried marriage, and the arrival not much later of a baby, after a trip out of town. There was the story about his disappearance at age twelve, during a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, and the frantic search for the missing child among relatives and the rest of the party of pilgrims. "His poor mother," they would have said. And now that he had grown up, he hadn't settled down and married like he should. How would his mother have explained that to her friends? And now this. He takes off into the desert after that hell fire and brimstone preacher, John the Baptist. He goes off to be baptized for his sins. Sins, eh! Didn't we always say it? And his poor mother!

And what, we may wonder, was going through Jesus' mind? What did he make of all this? There was something about him. He would have known that from hearing, as we all have, stories from his childhood. He was now about thirty, the time when a man should give up his adolescent dreams of glory and settle down to real life. He would have had those dreams. In his day they dreamed of the hope of Israel, of the coming of a divine king who would set the world straight, and bring about God the Creator's rule of the entire world. His people dreamed that Jerusalem would be the capital of a worldwide kingdom that would finally fulfill all of God's promises to his people, Israel. Maybe, as we dream of growing up to be President, boys in Jesus' world dreamed of growing up to be the conquering Messiah. And now, here comes his cousin John, also born with certain portents of divine activity, preaching the coming of the Messiah, and everybody better clean up their act and get ready.

So off he goes after John. He gets baptized and what happens? BAM! He's the one. He's always suspected something like this, but never dared to put it into words. Now it's not just some fuzzy idea in the back of his mind. God has spoken, and off Jesus goes into the desert to be tempted. There he learns a little more about what God's rule is going to be like, as he faces and refuses the temptation to follow his own ideas. You remember how the rest of the story turns out.

Jesus' baptism is his call and commissioning to inaugurate among us the rule and community of God. God calls him, "My son." He receives an identity he suspected in an unsuspected fullness. It is a call, the beginning of a new life for him, a life of carrying out the work God give him, a commission to begin the rule and community of God on earth.

We ourselves have all been baptized. Have we also been called like Jesus? Perhaps most of us were baptized as infants, so we don't remember our baptisms. But haven't there been moments in each of our lives when we have been called, given an identity that fulfilled who we suspected we were, given an identity from God, that fit our lives better than anything we could devise. Falling in love is that way. For many of us becoming a whole hearted, or more whole hearted, Christian was that way. Sometimes all at once we see our way clearly, at other times we reach a point where we have enough certainty and we act on it. Many times we can only identify the moment looking back on it. Sometimes we only know it was God calling us by looking back on the moment. One way and another, though, God has identified us and has a plan for us.

God first identifies us in creating us. This means that who we are is the first clue in finding our call. We have natural abilities and talents, often a mixture of things we like about ourselves and things we dislike as well. There are sometimes parts of our own past that are secrets, like Jesus' past, but even the gifts we don't like come from God. Often enough it takes a long time to identify these, because we are pushed and pulled by our families and our cultures to be other than we are. To some extent this is necessary for a full life in a fallen world. But there is within all of us a certain irreducible minimum of identity, and if we go against it, we go against God. And it is only with great pain and struggle that we can go against it.

This struggle is another clue to our call. What is struggling inside us is that identity seeking to express itself. Sometimes we know what it is that is seeking to come out into the light. Often, however, that person within, whom God created, dwells in darkness, and the struggle to bring her or him to the light is long and arduous. So psychotherapy, counseling, and spiritual direction have their place in our lives. We humans are fallen beings; we have not that full awareness of the world, ourselves, and others which we ought to have. Instead our hearts and minds are darkened by false awareness and distortions. So to find the selves God created us to be, we must struggle through the darkness.

Of course, not all the struggle is this dark and painful. In the normal course of things, we all have awarenesses emerging. That's what falling in love is, finding that our identity is related to some other person and his or her identity, and joining ourselves to that person in love. Finding a vocation to work is like this. Our talents become more and more visible, and more and more specific. Later in life, too, we may find a new vocational identity emerging and change careers. As parents or lovers, we are involved in a similar discernment of others' growth and development, in so far as we love and care for the other and are joined to her or him by ties of love. And we are loved and cared for by those others, who seek our true good as we seek theirs.

So it is with the God of love. It is God who has called us into being, created us as we are, to be a specific person, related to God and related to other people. It is God from whom we have fallen away as human beings. And it is God who wishes us to return to our better condition, and so has reversed the effects of human fallenness and sin. God cleanses us in Baptism and feeds our true life in the Holy Communion. God provides us grace from moment to moment and day to day so that we may live that fullness of life for which God created us.

Chances are our baptism was not like that of Jesus. We were most probably baptized as infants and so we have no memory of choosing God. Those baptized as adults are luckier in this respect. Baptism is that choice of God for ourselves, when we come to God and are cleansed and renewed for fuller life. Those of us baptized as infants must necessarily go through that choice later in life. And we have done so if we are here today. But whether we were baptized as infants or as adults, we are all engaged in the same process of continuously appropriating and accepting the call of God begun in creation and baptism, and which ends when we come finally to God at the end of our life.

What does this process require of us? First of all, it requires willingness. We have to be willing to undergo the growth of awareness. It is very easy to settle for things as they are, and then not permit them to change. The minute anything new inside us arises, up go our defenses, and down the new goes into the darkness of our mind's subbasement, never to be seen again. And nothing ever changes. So we need to be willing to look our real selves in the face, however challenging or painful that may be. We must also be willing to see signs of God in our lives. This means that we cannot attribute our gifts to ourselves, nor can we claim for ourselves all power over our own life. We must see that often enough, in some crisis, large or small, God has been with us providing answers and remedies we could not provide for ourselves. We must see that we have been taken care of when we could not take care of ourselves. We must see God doing that.

We must also be willing to respond to the God we find in our lives. This means that we are willing to repent. When we look at our lives in the presence of God, we will see that we have failed to respond to God, that we have chased any awareness of God out of our lives. We will see failures to respond to and love others as well as God. So we need the capacity to turn and say we are sorry to God and to other people, and to do what we can to correct our behavior and its effects. This is another painful awareness and struggle.

We must also respond to God with thanksgiving. When we see that God has been with us, to enable us to do what on our own we could not, or to bring us through something when we couldn't get through on our own, we must be able to recognize that it was God acting, and acknowledge that by giving thanks to God. If we don't do this, we are failing to acknowledge God, and claiming it all for ourselves. So we fall farther from God and farther from being the selves God has created and called us to be.

In Jesus' life, his baptism was the moment when what has been unconscious, half suspected and half denied, came to consciousness, and he knew at least the beginning of who he was and what he was to do in his life. So we who have been baptized seek to imitate Jesus in seeking such moments in our own lives, whether sudden or slow to come. We seek to be aware of God in our lives calling us and leading us as Jesus did his disciples, and we seek to respond to that presence with willingness, repentance and thanksgiving, so living our lives as Jesus did, in the service of God's kingdom.