The Baptism of the Lord

Baptism of the Lord

Today the Church celebrates the Baptism of the Lord which marks the end of the Christmas season.

The image of water runs (pun intended!) through the Year B readings for this feast. First we hear the prophet Isaiah calling all those who are thirsty to "come to the water". He likens the word of God to the rain that waters the earth and brings forth a rich harvest. This is one of the readings of the Easter Vigil, the prime time for celebrating the sacrament of baptism in the Catholic Church. In the refrain of today's psalm, which is actually a canticle from Isaiah chapter 12, we sing: "You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation".

The second reading comes from the first letter of John. It sums up what it means to be baptised. The baptised believe that Jesus is the Christ, are children of God and keep the commandments by loving God’s children.

"I have baptised you with water but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit!" announces John the Baptist in the reading from Mark's Gospel. Mark’s account of the baptism is probably the first that was written down. Early Christians found Jesus’ baptism difficult to explain theologically. If baptism washes away sin and Jesus was without sin, why was it necessary for him to be baptised?

The baptism of the Lord is another epiphany, or manifestation of Jesus to the world. In the biblical passages for the feast of the Epiphany last week, the Gentile Magi recognised Jesus as the Messiah. Today, God announces to all present at the baptism that Jesus is his beloved Son. The baptism of Jesus marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and a manifestation of his true identity. That identity does not come from his being freed from sin but from the voice of the Father proclaiming: “You are my beloved Son.”

The special preface for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a marvellous prayer which blends the themes of the baptism of Christ and the baptism of the faithful. It also incorporates several of the images that occur in today’s scriptures - the dove, the anointing and the gospel of salvation for the poor.

Some people attending Mass today might be puzzled to find Christmas decorations still in place (they may even think that someone has forgotten to take them down!) and even to be still singing some Christmas music. But these rightly belong in the liturgy on this day. The Christmas season celebrates the manifestation of Jesus, not only to the shepherds in the stable at Bethlehem, but also to the Gentile world represented by the Magi, and to the Jewish witnesses present at Christ’s baptism.

In the opening prayer of Mass today we renew our baptismal commitment: "Keep us, your children born of water and the Spirit, faithful to our calling". As we “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”, we go out into the world to live out that commitment.

Elizabeth Harrington