Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22
As the Christmas Season draws to a close, it culminates with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. Like so many of these other feasts, the risk is always to make this simply an historical event of years past. I think when we do celebrate any of them, it’s good to return to the source. I don’t mean return in the sense to going backwards to days when it meant something. We have a tendency to do that not only in the Church, but in this country as well. To return to the source is to be able to ask ourselves the meaning behind these events and then interpret them in the day and time in which we live. It’s how we grow and prevent ourselves as Church to trying to turn back the clock. Returning to the source of the Baptism of the Lord, just as we did with Epiphany and Christmas itself.
Of course, the source of the baptism is the River Jordan. Symbolically there is something significant to the Jordan as well as to water itself. Obviously, we still use it to this very day. Being plunged into the water, by adults as was typically done and is still encouraged, meant being plunged into the underworld, as water often symbolizes. It was a descent into the soul to allow our deepest identity to be revealed, so that when we emerge, as Jesus does, we are identified as a beloved son or daughter. You would literally be held under water until you could barely breathe. Certainly, we don’t want to go back to something so extreme, but the meaning gets lost in what we do. It gets lost in simply dropping handfuls of water over the head of a child, not necessarily to emerge a changed person, but to become a part of, to belong to a community.
It becomes, as it is in the Christmas celebration as well as in the gospel, a turning point, a transitional time from our old way of life while taking on and embracing the new way of life now, in Christ. Luke marks it even greater. If you listen closely, Luke wants to make an even greater transition and turning point by eliminating John the Baptist from the scene. We’ve become accustomed in the other gospels to hear of John baptizing Jesus; but not in Luke. By the time Jesus is baptized Luke has already been imprisoned by Herod. There was often confusion in the early communities over John because he was such a charismatic preacher. Luke finally makes the break to remove John from the scene, marking the end of the time of the prophets to the fulfillment of the prophecy in Christ. The community, gathered with Jesus in the water, take on that new identity now, no longer as followers of John, but an identity in Christ.
This is actually what made these communities such a threat to the many systems of their day. Their identity and lives were no longer wrapped up in the socio-economic reality of their day or even of family, because of their being plunged into the Jordan and into their own underworld, their soul, they emerge as dangerous people to the systems. They become freed of their own attachments to them and can no longer be touched by the ways of the world. You could imagine as these communities then began to grow, as we hear in Luke’s second volume, Acts of the Apostles, they meet tremendous opposition from the religious and political leaders of their day.
Our reading from Isaiah as well marks a rite of passage for Israel. Like us, they clung to their old ways and becomes known by repeating their same mistakes. Over time they believe that it is about the social and political norms of their own day, which often leads to war and conflict. When we pick up today, they are emerging from exile once again. They are told, though, as this emergence begins to take place, that war is no longer necessary. The old way of doing things for Jerusalem would no longer suffice and fulfill. They are, instead, return to their own source, to the one who has led them out of slavery and out of exile. As a matter of fact, more often than not it’s when we separate from the source when we find ourselves in exile, losing sight of our own deepest identity. The call for Israel, in this rite of passage, was to return to that source and once again find life, to find comfort and their truest power not in the ways of the world, but in God.
The invitation as we bridge Christmas and Ordinary time is to return to the source of our own lives. Most of us aren’t given the choice to be baptized, because we have made it more of a belonging and becoming a part of something, but we have the choice to seek, as the opening prayers says today, an inward transformation. If we find ourselves still clamoring to the socio-political ways of the world, we may find ourselves in exile or feeling like we’re in exile. We’re invited to be plunged into our very soul and once again reclaim our deepest and truest identity. The dove reminds us that it is peace we seek, but the wail of a dove also reminds us that inward transformation is a painful process of letting go and being set free from all that binds itself to our heart and soul. We desire and pray for the grace this day to return to the source, to take the plunge, so that we too may emerge as Christ does today, mindful of who we really are, sons and daughters of God.