FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD, January 10, 2021:
I’m going to be very honest with everyone today – I’m struggling with finding the right words to say. We celebrate today the Baptism of the Lord, the end of our Christmas season; normally a moment to beautifully bring to an end our reflection on the birth of Jesus and His early years; to sing once again our Christmas carols before we put them away for another year. But, instead, it is the swirling tides of indignation, anger, resentment, division, violence, and fear in our land that weigh so heavily on my – and I’m sure your – heart today. How did we get here?
We have reached a moment that was previously unthinkable; a moment that is terrible; a global embarrassment; a moment that is the antipathy of the values we hold dear as the great democracy we aspire to be. Or perhaps the events that unfolded this week were predictable if we look at the ever increasing polarization, division, and combativeness of our society over the last several years; maybe this explosion of terror and violence was the unavoidable result of the path we have been on. What we have seen unfold in the span of the last two months in particular has been a nation that has disregarded common decency, rejected mature and civil discourse; thrown aside respect for the dignity proper to every human being no matter their race, creed, or political persuasion. And the result was the violent assault on the heart of our democratic government; an assault that has taken the lives of five fellow citizens.
What are we to do? What can we possibly say in the midst of this? Well, I think that the feast we celebrate today can help us remember who we are and what we are called to be. As always, I believe it is our faith that can help direct us through these dark and murky waters – if we will follow where the Lord leads.
As I mentioned, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus today. Have you ever stopped to ask why Jesus was baptized? Baptism, after all, is for the forgiveness of sins. Baptism places us in relationship with God. Jesus – of all people to ever exist – doesn’t need baptism. We know this. So why would He choose to be baptized?
The best response I have heard to this question comes from Pope Emeritus Benedict, in his book, Jesus of Nazareth . Let me share a bit of what he said. He writes, “The real novelty is the fact that Jesus wants to be baptized, that he blends into the gray mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan. Baptism was a confession of sins and the attempt to put off an old, failed life and receive a new one. Is that something Jesus could even do?”
Jesus doesn’t need the newness of life that we need because of our sin. So, if the baptism of Jesus isn’t about His sin, whose sin is it about? Of course, it is about our sin. Again, the Pope writes, “Looking at [this baptism] in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of [humanity’s] guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross…The Baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity.”
In other words, as Jesus begins His public ministry, He does so by taking on our sins. It is not on the Cross that Jesus takes on the sins of humanity – it is there that He frees us from them. It is in the waters of the Jordan that Jesus steps into the place of sinners, into our place. In the Jordan, Jesus united Himself with us; and in our own baptism, we are united with Him – so that we can be forgiven, we can be healed, we can be saved. Again, the Pope writes, “To accept the invitation to be baptized now means to go to the place of Jesus' Baptism. It is to go where he identifies himself with us and to receive there our identification with him. The point where he anticipates death has now become the point where we anticipate rising with him. That is the way to become a Christian.”
This is the image that I think can give us some help today. We are meant today, not to reflect only on Jesus’ baptism; we’re called to be reminded of our own and of the divine exchange that took place there – Jesus took on our sins; and we took on His holiness. Jesus made Himself like us; so that we will make ourselves like Him. If this week has shown us anything, it has shown us that we are not living up to our end of that baptismal bargain. What we see in our nation right now – whether in the extreme as insurrectionists tried to overthrow our democratic government; or closer to home as we engage in angry arguments with others in person or online – what we see is a failure to identify our lives with the One who saved us; to identify with the One who stepped into the waters of the Jordan to lift the burden of our sins off of our shoulders and take them onto His own. We’re meant to be like Him because of our baptism.
This week, as these tragedies have unfolded, I keep thinking of the profound words of Abraham Lincoln, our great president who forged unity out of our greatest moment of division. In his first inaugural he reminded us, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
My friends, in the Jordan, Jesus stepped into our place, so that we might be free. We have let Him down and have put on public display how stuck we remain in sin. Today, let us ask Jesus to renew in our hearts; to renew in every heart, the grace of baptism. Jesus has already stepped into our place. We must again be the ones to step into His place and be the ones to bring His peace, His healing, His reconciliation, His compassion into our deeply wounded world. Let us again be touched by the better angels of our nature, let us remember that we are not enemies, and let us pray, in the words of St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
May the Lord heal our nation; and may He give you peace.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.