Today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord reminds us of our own baptism. Since most of us were baptized as infants, we generally take this sacrament for granted. This is unfortunate because our baptism is the most important thing that ever happened in our life.
Whenever I teach the catechism on baptism to children (and adults, as well), I use the story of the Lord’s baptism. I start by questioning why Jesus asked to be baptized, when he has no sin. Even John, the Baptist, refused to give in to his request at first. Jesus wanted to be baptized in order to show us what baptism is and what it does. What happened to Jesus at his baptism also happened to us at ours. What happened in the River Jordan?
Three things: heaven opened, the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, and a voice was heard from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Likewise, when we were baptized, heaven opened and the Spirit descended on us. Not only, he entered our hearts and shared with us the divine life (sanctifying grace) which makes children of God. Thus, in baptism the Father also laid claim on us by saying, “You are my beloved son/daughter…” And because we are God’s children, we are heirs of his kingdom. That’s why at our baptism, heaven opened for us too.
This is a simple way of making the sacrament of baptism understandable to children. The reality of baptism, however, is so much deeper and richer.
By submitting himself to baptism, Jesus identified himself with us, not only as humans but as sinners. The baptism of John was not just some social ceremony or innocuous ritual, but a baptism of repentance meant for sinners. How embarrassing it must have been for Jesus to fall in line and wait for his turn with sinners to be baptized.
And although he was without sin, he took upon himself the maximum consequence of sin. Divesting himself of his divinity, he humbled himself and became a man and a slave, obedient unto death (the ultimate wage of sin), death on a cross. (Ph 2: 6-8)
Jesus identifies himself with us sinners so that we can identify ourselves with God. Today’s gospel tells us that “on coming out of the water, [Jesus] saw the heavens being torn open.” This is an auspicious foreshadowing of what was to happen when Jesus would finally accomplish his mission of salvation by his death on Calvary. The curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple would be torn from top to bottom. In Christ, the curtain separating heaven and earth is no more.
As I mentioned last Sunday, the Eastern Church celebrates their feast of Epiphany today. The baptism of Jesus is a Trinitarian epiphany in which the Father manifests himself as a voice from heaven, revealing his only-begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit as a dove descending on the long-promised Anointed One (Messiah).
But even more important than the Trinitarian manifestation is God’s desire to draw every baptized into his Trinitarian life. As children of the heavenly Father and members of the Body of Christ, the Church, we are called to live God’s own life of holiness. It would be impossible to live such lofty calling if not for the Holy Spirit who lives in our hearts and who empowers and sanctifies us.
One last item. The words of the Father declaring Jesus as “my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” echo an earlier claim on “my servant… my chosen one with whom I am well pleased.” (Isaiah 42:1) The voice from heaven reveals not only the identity of Jesus but also his mission. The beloved Son is the Suffering Servant whom the Father sends to save the world and atone for its sins by his suffering and death on the cross.
In the same manner, our own baptism defines not only our identity but also our mission. Our mission flows from our identity as disciples of Christ. Following Christ (discipleship) goes all the way to continuing his mission and heeding his call to “go to all nations and preach the gospel to everyone.” A true disciple is a missionary disciple.
As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines, we are called to share our faith, God’s greatest gift to us, to our neighboring non-Christian countries. Thus, our theme, “missio ad gentes” – mission to [all] peoples. It is an enormous and far-reaching mission for the Philippine Church. And it starts with every baptized Filipino, living his identity as a child of God and disciple of Christ.