It was 37 years ago, on December 12, that I received the sacrament of ordination as a Permanent Deacon. It was, and will always be, a memory that is vivid within my soul and my heart.
As part of that ordination, each of us received a Bible and each of us received the same instruction:
Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are.
Believe what you read.
Teach what you believe.
Practice what you teach.”
That was the seminal moment of my ministerial life and, for 33 years, I functioned as a permanent deacon, doing my secular job during the day, and my diaconal work at nights and on the weekends.
But it was that day, 37 years ago, that my public ministry began. It was both a seminal moment for me and a transformational one. Today, we witness in the Gospel the seminal moment of the public ministry of Jesus Christ. The readings of today underscore that the Baptism of Jesus was a major turning point in His life. Prior to it, we know very little of His life between age twelve and thirty. Jesus’ public life began with His Baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan.
But why is The Baptism of the Lord so major and what is the significance of all of this for us. Why did Jesus even need to be baptized and what does it mean for us? After all, baptism did not start with John the Baptism. The Jews used baptism for centuries. It was used by them as an initiation rite for pagans who wished to become Jews. Even in today’s Gospel, you hear John the Baptist almost shying away from baptizing Jesus. Yet, Jesus knew that it had to be done not just to fulfill the prophecy but he also did it for a far more personal reason – he did it for you and me. By lining up with the sinners to be baptized, Jesus set himself aside from the exemption he could have claimed as the Son of God. Instead, he completely identified with the sinfulness of humanity and became one like us.
In this humble submission, we see a foreshadowing of the ‘baptism’ of his bloody death upon the cross. Jesus’ baptism is the acceptance and the beginning of his mission as God’s suffering Servant. He allowed himself to be numbered among sinners. He submitted himself entirely to his Father’s will. Out of love he consented to this baptism of death for the remission of our sins.
No matter how many times I have chewed on that thought in 37 years, I have never ceased to be overwhelmed by it.
But there is even more. This extraordinary event was also an epiphany —. a revelation of who Jesus was – it was the Divine witness to Jesus’ standing as the Son of God. In fact, it is only 1 of 2 times in all the gospels that God speaks directly – the other, if you are curious, is The Transfiguration. But The Jordan scene was one in which the threefold presence of God was manifested. The Gospel Reading of today tells us that after the baptism of Jesus, when he came up from water, the heavens were opened and the Spirit of God descended upon him like a dove and a voice was heard – “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Here we see that Jesus is filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit and is declared by God the Father as His beloved Son. And this is what happens to us when we are baptized, –. at baptism we are filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit and obtain a new life; next, we also become a child of God in Jesus Christ. In baptism, we too are named by God. All of us have different names, signifying our uniqueness before God. Yet in baptism, all of us are given the same name, i.e.. ‘child of God,’ signifying our oneness with God and our unity with one another in God. God says to Jesus at his baptism, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” God says the same thing to each one of us in our baptism, ‘You are my beloved daughter, my beloved son.’
Through the Sacrament of Baptism, we begin a new life by establishing a union with the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and the Holy Spirit and receiving the gift of faith. In this new birth, we receive remission from sin, receives the Spirit of son-ship which us to become a child of God, a member of the Church, and a citizen of heaven. This way baptism becomes the gateway to the life of grace and the door which gives access to the other sacraments.
With baptism our new life of grace begins; it is a fresh start and the gateway to the rest of Christian life. But what we should be prepared for is that our journey of faith, much like Jesus’ journey, continues to unfold long after our baptism as we try to discern what our baptism means in our daily living.
And in so doing, the Church invites all of us to renew our own baptismal promises, so that we can live ever more transparently as a disciple of Jesus, trying to do what is right, and true, and good, and beautiful.
By being baptized, even though he had no need to be cleansed from sin himself, Jesus takes our place. And we in turn, when we are baptized, are called to take Jesus’ place, to become ‘sons in the Son.’ Thus through baptism, we put on Christ; we are clothed with Christ; we become one with Christ; we become another Christ.
That is the key for us. It is His mandate. He asks us to become Christ-like in all that we do. And that, my friends, is a tall order for all of us.
It’s probably one of the many reasons that Pope Francis is as popular as he is. Because this Pope says to put aside our preoccupation with our worldly goods — be it priest or lay person. Recognize that the more we are attached to what we have – the more toys we feel obsessed with having, the more pride we take in demonstrating our worldly wealth, the harder it is for us to become Christ-like..
You know, all of us in Panama, have a unique invitation. The invitation is to look around at this beautiful country and, at the same time, to see all that can be done. There is so much that we can do to help the average Panamanian grow in his/her dignity; so much that we can do to help the average Panamanian continue their growth either professionally or as a tradesman. We can’t do that by sitting in our enclaves. We do that by recognizing that, as guests who take much from this country, we can also give much. It all begins with recognizing that we are all sons and daughters in Christ. It all begins by recognizing that every day, as difficult as it may be, we are called to conform to Christ. We are called to find ways that we can help, we are called to let the light of Christ shine through us so that in all that we do, in all that we say, so that we can be recognized as Christians. It is easy? No way. Do we stumble and fall each day. You bet. But you know what? It wasn’t easy for the human Jesus. He stumbled. He despaired. He questioned why. But he knew that in his human failings, we could identify more with Him.
Our baptism is never a one-time event. We are called to live and keep our baptismal promises throughout our life. We who have received the grace of baptism must endeavor always to live up to our baptismal promises throughout our life. And that is the Good News of today – the question for all of us is whether we accept the challenge to allow the grace of baptism to shine through our actions today and every day.