When was the moment John knew? As he reached out his arms to baptize this young man before him, what tipped him off that this man was different from all the others who stood on the bank of the River Jordan, come to confess their sins and be baptized, “to flee from the coming wrath” (Matthew 3:7).
Was it when he looked into Jesus’ eyes? The eyes betray the depth of one’s soul. Or was it when his arms guided Jesus, submerging him in the waters of baptism and repentance?
How did he sense that this was at last the moment when baptism of water would yield to the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire?
The trembling awe-filled simple movements of baptizing. Pouring water. Words. The call to repentance. “I need to baptized by you,” whispered John, as he realized that before him stood the Messiah. “You come to me?”
A quiet hushed exchange surrounded by the water, just enough distance from the others. A sanctuary now of worship and glory.
Jesus chose to join the ranks of sinners, to be in solidarity with all of us who struggle through the mess and “muckiness” of life, so that he could express how close God is to us.
Benedict XVI put it this way:
Jesus shows his solidarity with us, with our efforts to convert and to be rid of our selfishness, to break away from our sins in order to tell us that if we accept him in our life he can uplift us and lead us to the heights of God the Father. And Jesus’ solidarity is not, as it were, a mere exercise of mind and will. Jesus truly immersed himself in our human condition, lived it to the end, in all things save sin, and was able to understand our weakness and frailty. For this reason he was moved to compassion, he chose to “suffer with” men and women, to become a penitent with us. This is God’s work which Jesus wanted to carry out: the divine mission to heal those who are wounded and give medicine to the sick, to take upon himself the sin of the world….
Indeed Jesus acted as the Good Shepherd who tended his sheep and gathered his flock, so that none might stray (cf. Is 40,10-11), and laid down his life so that it might have life. It is through his redeeming death that man is liberated from the dominion of sin and reconciled with the Father; it is through his resurrection that man is saved from eternal death and enabled to triumph over the Evil One.
John the Baptizer knew at that moment that his life had meaning. That the promise of his birth, the role he was to play as the precursor of the Messiah, was indeed true. Unexpectedly that morning he had bumped into the majesty of God and his glory. “As Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3:16-17).
And we, baptized in waters made pure by Jesus’ own baptism are “deeply united with Jesus for ever, immersed in the mystery of his power, of his might, namely, in the mystery of his death which is a source of life so as to share in his resurrection, to be reborn to new life. This is the miracle that is repeated [at every baptism,]. In receiving baptism [we] are reborn as children of God who share in the filial relationship that Jesus has with the Father, in other words who can address God, calling him with full confidence and trust: “Abba, Father.” The heavens are also opened above [us] and God says: these are my children, children in whom I am well pleased” (Pope Benedict XVI, January 13, 2013).
Perhaps you are still waiting for that awe-filled moment when you realize not that the Messiah stands before you, but that God stands for you, is for ever with you, and has called you his beloved and dear child because you have been deeply united with Jesus in baptism.
It is fear that makes us feel lost, forced to hurry through our lives, too busy, buried in consumption and distraction. Yesterday in a Melkite cathedral my eyes feel on the loveliest icon of Mary holding her child. There was a purity, a transparent beauty that made all the distractions in which I immerse myself seem like mere dust. It is fear that keeps us focused on everything but the glory of being God’s child. The fear of the unknown, the fear of being undone, the fear of breaking and falling apart, the fear of rejection, and the fear of death. We look in every place but the face of God for solutions to these fears, this God who has walked our fearful ways and shown us that we are never alone wherever they may lead us.
Here is a simple practice to retrace our steps to glory:
Bless yourself with holy water. Holy Water is known as a “sacramental,” a sacred sign that bears a resemblance to the sacraments. Unlike a sacrament, a sacramental does not itself confer the grace of the Holy Spirit, but helps the faithful to sanctify each moment of life and to live in the paschal mystery of our Lord.
Holy water fonts are just inside the doors of the Church and we probably don’t realize the amazing gift we have to bless ourselves in this way each time we enter a Church. We can also bring holy water into our homes. When my brother and sister and I were growing up, we had holy water fonts in each of our bedrooms and at the front door. We blessed ourselves regularly and Mom often would bless us with the holy water when she woke us up in the morning.
When we make the sign of the cross with the holy water we remind ourselves of our Baptism, when by the invocation of the Holy Trinity and the pouring of Holy Water, we were set free from original sin and all sin, infused with sanctifying grace, incorporated into the Church, and given the title son or daughter of God. As we make the Sign of the Cross with holy water we enter anew into John the Baptist’s call to repentance through baptism. We renew our life in Christ, in whom we have died and risen. Holy water is also a protection from evil. Saint Teresa of Avila wrote about the power of holy water with these words:
Holy water, then, is a powerful means to root ourselves anew in our identity in Christ. No matter how lost in fear or distrust we may be, no matter how far we may have wandered or how scattered we may feel we can find our way back to our baptism, to the moment of recognition, to the power of being called “my beloved child” by the Father, to the certainty of our being held in existence by Christ.
Image Credit: Baptism of Christ: David Zelenka Own work, available wikimedia commons.