Thursday, January 6, 2011

Out of the depths

Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011
Baptism of the Lord—A
(First Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Acts 10:34-38
Matthew 3:13-17

As we emerge from the Christmas season and embark on ordinary time, the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord evokes a Christian sense of a New Year’s resolution. We are reminded that our faith should grow year-round, year by year, and that this faith involves salvation through Christ in solidarity and service.

A few remarkable parallels in today’s first reading and Gospel signify this. Isaiah depicts the ideal servant of God as one whose only purpose is to bring freedom and justice to all through self-sacrifice. The voice from the heavens in Matthew echoes that of Isaiah’s prophecy as Jesus’ mission is manifested at His baptism: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is the Servant sent into the world to redeem God’s people.

Although He is without sin, Jesus is baptized to signify his solidarity with sinful humanity. Again, Isaiah and Matthew use similar terms. Isaiah speaks of God’s servant freeing people “from the dungeon,” while Matthew says Jesus “came up from the water.” In the ancient Hebrew worldview, suffering evoked sin, and water, death. Sheol lurked below the seas, which sprung from the Abyss.

Scripture tells us, though, that God has power and authority over the waters, and therefore over sin and death. “In the beginning … the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’” (Gen 1:1-3). As the Israelites fled from the pursuing Egyptians, “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land” (Ex 14:21). Moses led God’s people through the sea safely, and the waters returned to swallow up their enemies.

Psalm 107 offers thanksgiving to God for deliverance from trials, and verses 23-32 recount the joy of those whose lives were spared from the stormy waters: “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed” (Ps 107:28-29). Many of the Psalms are filled with such images, and the Gospels shed new light on them by recounting Jesus’ ability to walk on water and calm stormy seas. Jesus, as Son and Servant of God, conquers and transforms death and sin. He makes “the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to cross over” (Isa 51:10).

So, when Jesus is baptized, He is immersed in the depths of our darkness—filled with its sin, failure, disordered desire, pain, sorrow, and death. Then he arises, “the heavens were opened for him,” and a voice from the heavens claims Him as his beloved Son. This, of course, prefigures Jesus’ death and resurrection, and signifies God’s plan of salvation. Jesus demonstrates His solidarity with us by entering into the Abyss with us and His service by bringing us into the Light with Him.

But if we are saved with Him, we must also serve with Him. So, we are also reminded of our baptismal call as Christians—to bring freedom and justice to all through self-sacrifice.

That is by far the best New Year’s resolution we can make.

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