Baptism of the Lord
Some time ago I had led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to visit the historical sights associated with Christ. We visited the little cave in Bethlehem where Our Lord was born, wandered through the desert where He confronted Satan head on. We sat on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where our Lord preached. We walked the streets of Jerusalem, our feet touching the every stones which paved its streets two thousand years ago. We looked up at the ancient crumbling walls of what is left of the old temple and visited the place associated with the site of the Last Supper. We entered into the large church built over the hill of calvary where He was crucified to death and, one by one, passed into His empty tomb where he resurrected from the dead. We climbed the steep and winding path up the hill of the Mount of Olives where the Risen Lord was lifted up into heaven.
Of course, during our visits we share the road with tourists, holiday makers, Christians, Jews and Muslims, believers and nonbelievers. But as we read the scripture accounts, studied our surroundings and meditated on the significance of where we were, we could not help but be immersed into the very life, death and resurrection of Christ. What we had learnt in Sunday school, seen in holy pictures, read in the Bible, within the context of the holy sites we stood in, Christ became real, His life meaningful and His spirit and grace alive in those moments.
A rare opportunity was opened for us to also visit the river Jordan in whose waters Jesus was baptised, as we read in the Gospel today. We had even planned to wade into the river, to renew a sense of our own baptism in the waters that Christ had once been baptised in. As we approached the banks, we looked at the river. It was filthy! Parts of it were stagnant. You could see trash and plastic objects floating in it, even here and there a shimmer of oil on the surface. The water was brown and smelly, flies and insects danced on its surface. Even an occasional dead fish floated by! God only knew what lay beneath it. It was repugnant. Instinctively, I knew this place was a major health hazard.
Was I going to even touch this water, even dip my finger into it, to at least bless myself?
I read and mediated on the Gospel we have just heard, recalling Christ being baptised in this river. It then occurred to me, during Christ’s time this very river that flowed into the desert was used by towns and villages upstream to dump their human waste. Now that I looked into this filthy dirty water before me, realizing how disgusting and more vile it must’ve been so 2000 years ago, used as a floating dumpster for humanity. What was Christ getting himself into?
As pilgrims, passing through this world, we can visit the sites associated with Christ’s life, death and resurrection but we can keep ourselves clean, sanitized, on the outside looking in or reviewing our Lord’s life like a picture book, a movie or walking through a museum.
God did not tiptoe through the murky waters or walk carefully across stepping stones from one side of the river Jordan to the other. No. The word “baptism“ literally means “immersion”. God was no tourist to earth or a pilgrim visiting sites. The pure and the holy, the divine and sinless one, totally immersed Himself, plunged himself completely into the filth and horror, into the physical and spiritual (dare I call it…) excrement of the human condition, into the dark depths, into the very bowels of human sin. He was baptized, not only into our life, but into our sickness, our diseases, our sins, our death.
Do we as Christians remain on the riverbank peering in from a distance, astonished, removed, or from the sidelines, simply full of admiration for what Christ did? Can we hear His voice again that calls to us saying, “come follow me”. What? Follow you into your baptism, that baptism?
Yes. Do not be afraid, He would tell us. Despite its appearance from the shore, Christ has cleansed the sinful and dangerous waters of the human condition. He has absorbed into His very self all the sins of the world - He has put them to death. Through Him, they have no sticking power, but only if we allow ourselves to be immersed deeper and deeper into His life, His death and resurrection.
That’s why we can not simply sit on the riverbank, or observe Christ’s life from a safe distance like tourists simply passing through. The grace initiated in our life when we were first baptised, still runs through us. Is that water still clean or does it stink? That’s why it is also so important to regularly repent of, confess and do penance for our sins. Doing so safeguards us slipping or falling down a muddy bank into an uncharted river whose contents and direction we know not.
With the closing of the Christmas season now upon us, meditate on how God immersed himself into the complexities of our human lives. But do not be afraid to immerse yourself deeper and deeper into his, so that we may come to share in the heights of his divinity because He dared to plunge Himself into the depths of our humanity.