When John baptized Jesus the Father said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The same thing He said when you were baptized.
You and I, as 21st century Americans, may not get the image John shares with us in this Sunday’s Gospel. As Jesus walks by, John the Baptist says to his two disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God.” When we think of a lamb, we probably picture a cute, warm and fuzzy little beast. I have a stuffed lamb that sits in my office. My particular lamb is black, reminding me of the back sheep, the rebel, the trouble-maker, that we all tend to be sometimes. You are probably familiar with Lambchop, ventriloquist Sherri Lewis’ puppet. Maybe you picture the sheep that promote a certain brand of mattress.
Or, if you’re more into food than stuffed animals, you may think of lamb chops with mint jelly. Lamb stew, or Irish stew may be in your mind. If you’ve been to the Emerald Isle, you know that, outside of the cities, sheep and lambs are everywhere. In America you’re most likely to see an actual lamb at a petting zoo.
But, to a first century Jew, the lamb was a symbol of sacrifice. When John pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God, his message was that Jesus would become a sacrifice. He would be killed. Even so, the disciples chose to follow Him, knowing that they might also be called to sacrifice their own lives. The question is, are we willing to follow the Lamb? Are we willing to give up everything for the sake of the kingdom?
Here’s a link to an excellent homily by Father Robert Barron on this Gospel. It’s about fifteen minutes long and well worth your time. Check it out.
People in Biblical times looked at things a lot differently than we do today. Our reading from Luke’s Gospel is a good example.
“When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her.”
Remember, Elizabeth was no kid. That was part of the miracle. The angel told Mary, “behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age.” Looking around this church this morning I’d say we’re a pretty mature crowd. If one of us, or our wife, was to come up pregnant would we think the Lord had shown us “great mercy”? We might think exactly the opposite. Would our neighbors and relatives come to rejoice with us?
Luke tells us that the people asked “What, then, will this child be?” They had no idea what he would become. In the continuation of this passage, after he gets his voice back, Zechariah will tell John what he is to become, but no one knows it yet.
I guess you’d say these people’s glass was always half full where, today, we tend to see it more as half empty. When God called on them, they usually said yes, even when they didn’t know what they were saying “yes” to.
It’s the same thing with John’s name. The angel had told Zechariah what to call the child. “Call him John.” The relatives and neighbors objected. Babies were given family names. It was unheard of to give a child, especially a son, a different name. But Elizabeth insisted that he be called John and Zechariah confirmed it, writing on a tablet “John is his name.” It’s a good thing he did because that’s when he got his voice back.
Family names aren’t so important today. In fact a lot of parents seem to go out of their way to hang strange monikers on their poor, innocent children. But how many couples would give their kid a name because an angel told them to? Probably not many.
Here’s the thing. People in Jesus’ time were open to the will of the Father. They put God first and themselves second. That’s not so common today. Separated from them by 2,000 years and half a world away, I think it’s hard for us sometimes to understand just how obedient those people were and how much we come up short.
Some might say that God has never asked them to do anything. They would be wrong. God speaks to us in any number of ways including through the Scriptures and through signs. The problem is that most of us don’t take the time to listen. We need to be open to the Father’s word and to listen for it.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist. We’ve heard the story lots of times. John’s baptizing at the river and Jesus gets in line along with everyone else. But, why? He was the Son of God. He came down from heaven and would soon go back. Why did He need to baptized? The answer is that He didn’t. Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, but you and I needed Him to be baptized. Saint Maximus of Turin, one of the Church Fathers, wrote “Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy.”
If you remember your grade school science you know that water evaporates, forms clouds, and returns to earth. The cycle repeats itself over and over. The wind blows the clouds so that the water that evaporates in one place comes down somewhere else. Eventually every drop of water on earth is connected to every other drop. When Jesus made the water of the Jordan holy, he made all water holy.
Obviously Jesus thought baptism was very important. In John’s Gospel He said, “Unless a man is reborn in water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” In Matthew’s Gospel he tells the Apostles, “Go, make disciples of all nations, and baptize them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is our response to Christ.
Here’s what the Church says about the three sacraments of initiation, baptism, confirmation, and first communion, straight from the baptism rite.: “Through the sacraments of Christian initiation men and women are freed from the power of darkness. With Christ they die, are buried, and rise again.” Notice it says “with Christ.” Just like Maximus said, Jesus had to be baptized first. “They receive the Spirit of adoption which makes them God’s sons and daughters and, with the entire people of God, they celebrate the memorial of the Lord’s death and resurrection.”
Here’s what the book says specifically about baptism: “Through baptism men and women are incorporated into Christ. They are formed into God’s people, and they obtain forgiveness of all their sins. They are raised from their natural human condition to the dignity of adopted children. They become a new creation through water and the Holy Spirit. Hence they are called, and are indeed, the children of God.”
Jesus died and rose from the dead to defeat death, to save all of us from our sins. But what He does today makes it possible for us individually to be one of his people. Baptism is the beginning of our journey of faith. Jesus’ seemingly unnecessary decision to be baptized by John, someone “not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals”, is actually the beginning of OUR journey of faith.
Personally I was baptized at the age of twenty so I do remember receiving the sacrament, especially how hard it was for my godfather to hold me over the baptismal font. But for most of us, christened as babies, it’s good that we celebrate today to remind us of the promises our parents made for us. This is what we ask the parents who present their child for the sacrament. “You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring him up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking? At this point the parents answer, “We do.”
Then we ask the godparents if they’re ready to help the parents in their duty as Christian parents. They answer “We do.” Then the deacon or the priest says “The Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of the cross on your forehead, and invite your parents and godparents to do the same.”
Then we have a reading or two, maybe a homily, some prayers and then the actual baptism. But before we bring out the water, we ask the parents to renounce sin and to renew their own baptismal promises. We tell the parents, “On your part, you must make it your constant care to bring her up in the practice of the faith. See that the divine life which God gives her is kept safe from the poison of sin, to grow always stronger in her heart.
“If your faith makes you ready to accept this responsibility, renew now the vows of your own baptism. Reject sin; profess your faith in Jesus Christ. This is the faith of the Church. This is the faith in which this child is about to be baptized.”
Then the baptism takes place, we say a couple of more prayers, the family takes a lot of pictures then everyone adjourns for a nice lunch.
Even if you don’t remember your own baptism, you probably remember your kids’ or your grandkids’. Maybe you’ve been a godparent a time or two. So you’re probably wondering why I’m giving you this baptismal instruction. As usual, I’m taking the scenic route to make a point. Also, I want to make a disclaimer. If I’ve baptized your child and you’re sitting here in church today, what I’m about to say doesn’t apply to you. You get it. You’re following up on the promises you made that day for yourself and your baby. Congratulations!
But often, too often, after the baby is baptized, after the parents and godparents have said they clearly understand what they’re undertaking; after they promise to raise him or her in the faith, after everyone has renewed their baptismal promises, WE NEVER SEE ANY OF THEM AGAIN! Like I said, there are a lot of exceptions which give all of us hope. And sometimes we baptize kids whose grandparents are in the parish but who live somewhere else. They want to have the kids baptized in their home parish. My son and daughter-in-law are in that group. I’ve baptized my two grandkids here, but their parish is in O’fallon, MO. It’s understandable that that happens sometimes. I’m not talking about them either.
The point I’m trying to make is this: Baptism is a big deal. It’s a big enough deal that Jesus had Himself baptized, even though He didn’t really need it. He did it for us. But too many of us don’t take it seriously. A lot of babies get baptized because the grandparents insist on it, even if mom and dad haven’t seen the inside of a church since their wedding day, if then.
Some parents don’t really have a clue of why they’re doing it, but they know that they were baptized, and their friends kids are getting baptized, so they’d better call the church. After all, christening pictures are always cute and they don’t want to be left out. A lot of the time they’re more interested in what the baby’s going to wear, sometimes something really old that they wore for their own baptism, what they’re going to have for lunch, and those all-important pictures.
The Church says that parents are the first and most important teachers and I agree with that 100%. It’s up to us to bring our kids up in the faith. As a lot of us know, we aren’t always successful. Sometimes they go their own way. Then it’s up to us to pray them back. But I promise, if we don’t lead them by our example, taking them to mass every Sunday, taking them to PSR or Catholic school, if we don’t pray with them and for them, then our chances of success are a big, fat zero.
But, even if they are no small people in your life, it’s good to remember our own baptismal promises. To remember that we rejected Satan and all his works and empty promises. It’s good to think about the words of the Creed that we’ll recite in just a few minutes. Not to just recite it along with everyone else, but to actually think about what we’re saying.
We’re talking about our immortal souls and the immortal souls of our children. Jesus did much more than His share to save us, but we have to do our part, too. Remember what God the Father said in today’s Gospel. “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.” I don’t know about you, bit I’d like to hear those words myself when I meet Him face to face.
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'”
Do you sometimes feel like John the Baptist when he spoke these words? I know I do. We may feel like we’re living in a spiritual desert when we turn on the television or pick up the newspaper and are faced with the reality of modern life. It can be overwhelming.
It took the city of Saint Louis less than an hour to record the first two homicides of 2010. We read daily of the loss of life in the Middle East. And the abortions. Thousands of American babies murdered every single day and it’s hardly noticed.
There is much work to be done. So much that we do feel like “voices crying out in the desert.” But it’s a new year and a new beginning and that always inspires hope because we know that with God anything is possible. So rather than make a “new year’s resolution” that you may or may not be able to keep, maybe a better idea would be to resolve to make things better this year in our respective corners of the world.
I recently attended a dinner with Archbishop Robert Carlson. He gave us a very simple challenge. Imagine if each of us would bring one person back to the Church. What a difference that would make! We can do that. Then God can take it from there.
In today’s Gospel we read of the birth of John the Baptist. Isn’t it odd that when Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives gathered on the eighth day for the baby’s circumcision that they had already chosen a name for him? My wife and I have four kids and we didn’t let our neighbors and relatives pick a single name. I doubt if you did either.
Even when Elizabeth told them that the baby’s name would be John, they still argued with her. “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.” So, they asked Zechariah what he thought. Remember that he was struck dumb when he questioned the angel’s words that Elizabeth was going to be a mother in her old age. So he took a tablet and wrote “John is his name,” and “all were amazed.”
This elderly woman has had a baby, her husband has had his voice taken away, and the relatives and neighbors are amazed that they’ve chosen to name the baby John? That seems to me to be the most normal thing that’s happened around there for a while.
But don’t we all know someone like that? They overlook the main thing to focus on the small stuff. You know, the ones who rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.
But then, the most amazing thing of all. Zechariah gets his voice back. Now the neighbors are afraid. The events are discussed “throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, ‘What, then, will this child be?'”
Well, we know the answer to the question. John will go before the Lord to prepare His way. Everyone of us is a little bit John. Our calling is to prepare the Lord’s way, too.
Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. As we wind up the Advent season, hopefully we can look back and see that we’re just a little bit more ready than we were four weeks ago. If so, then our Advent has been a success.