January 15, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

All are called to holiness, the fulfillment of Christian life

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

“After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’ ” (Lk 3: 21-22).

Last weekend, we celebrated the Baptism of the Lord. This powerful story of the emergence of Jesus of Nazareth from a private life into the public ministry that would end in both the tragedy of his death and the joy of his resurrection commands our prayerful attention. The Triune God is at work here in ways that are amazing to behold!

First, we see the intense longing of God’s Chosen People for the Messiah (the “anointed one”) who was to save his people from their bondage. Might John the Baptist be the one? John denies this emphatically. “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Lk 3:16). John’s humility is remarkable. He resists all attempts to make himself more than he really is—the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “A voice proclaims: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God” (Is 40:3)!

John tells the people that the Messiah will bring a qualitatively different kind of baptism. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.

How are we to understand this new form of baptism? How is it different from the baptism of John? Water remains the sacramental sign of the new baptism, so what distinguishes the baptism of the Messiah from the baptism of John?

The baptism of Jesus was the work of the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was an act of divine intervention in human history that changed the course of all our lives, making it possible for each of us to “die with Christ in order to live with him forever” (Rm 6: 3-11). The baptism of John was a symbolic cleansing of sin. The new baptism is a death and rebirth. It is a casting off of the old self in order to be reborn in the Spirit and united with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

John knew that he could not accomplish this kind of radical transformation simply by a symbolic baptism by water. What was needed was the power of the Holy Spirit that changes the sacramental sign (water) into a profound conversion of mind, heart and daily living that is powerful enough to set the world on fire!

St. Luke tells us that after all the people were baptized by John, Jesus entered the river Jordan and was baptized as well. At this moment, “heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’ ” (Lk 3:21-22). What a rare, and powerful, depiction of the Holy Trinity at work in the world. What a profound affirmation of the importance of baptism in the life of Jesus and in our lives as well.

The Second Vatican Council stressed that “all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of charity” (“Lumen Gentium,” the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” #40). This is the universal call to holiness—the call to die with Christ in order to be reborn by the Holy Spirit and fire! To accept this call, we must be humble like John. We must recognize that “one mightier than I” has come and has invited us to share in his own holiness. Above all, we must open our minds and hearts to let the power of God transform us.

When more than 1,000 people were welcomed into our own local Church at the Easter Vigil last year, the story of the Lord’s baptism was relived right here in the parishes of our archdiocese. Water was poured out on the newly baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And once again, the Triune God intervened in human history to change the lives of those who received this great sacrament. God willing, this same miracle will be repeated at this year’s Easter Vigil!

May each of us recall that we have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire. May we choose to die with Christ so that we can live with him in glory! †

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