Traditionally, churches were built facing east, and the standard location for the baptismal font became the northwest corner. For various reasons, Immaculate Conception was built facing a different direction, but the traditional internal alignment was followed - with the font in what would be the northwest corner if the church did actually face east. Two years ago, we restored the original font and returned it to its original place.
Traditional baptisteries often include an image of the Baptism of Jesus by John – suggesting a connection between our baptism and that of Jesus. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, before dying and rising with Christ became the popular western image for it, baptism was mainly about being born again of water and the Holy Spirit – one reason Epiphany became the baptismal feast in the East, as Easter eventually became in the West. At Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River [Luke 3:21-22], God the Father identified Jesus as his Son, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. At our baptism, through the gift of the same Holy Spirit, we in turn are now identified with the Son, and so share in an “adoptive” kind of way in his relationship with his Father. Thus, Jesus’ baptism does actually anticipate the baptism that has elevated us to a new status in relation to the Father and so empowered us to continue Christ’s life and mission in our world though his Church.
That said, the theme of today’s celebration of the Baptism of the Lord is primarily about Jesus’ baptism, not ours, - and really not so much about Jesus’ actual baptism as about what followed after Jesus had been baptized and was praying, when heaven was opened for a revelation (in other words, an “epiphany”) of his status as the eternal Son of God. While God the Father’s words themselves seem to have been addressed directly to Jesus alone, the event itself has been recounted for our benefit. In this revelation, in this “epiphany,” we get a glimpse of the hitherto hidden, inner life of God, now suddenly revealed in what God is doing, for us, through Jesus’ mission as messiah.
Something really new and wonderful is happening here. Heaven has opened. The barrier between heaven and earth, between God and us, has been breached, and the (until now) invisible God has not only spoken, but through his Word has become visible for us as his Son, who has revealed God to us in a way we would not otherwise have known. What is being revealed in Jesus is nothing less than what St. Paul, writing to Titus [2:11-14; 3:4-7], called the kindness and generous love of God our savior. We are invited to accept God’s kindness and generous love ourselves, as his own people, prepared to be transformed, or – as St. Paul put it - eager to do what is good.
So it is no accident that these are the very same words of St. Paul, which were heard on Christmas itself. Although the cycle of Christmas-related festivals doesn’t completely conclude until we celebrate the Presentation of the Lord on February 2, today celebrates the fulfillment of the Christmas season. Measured by the secular time by which we rule our lives, today’s feast may seem like some sort of post-holiday afterthought. Actually, however, the identification of Jesus as the Son of God and the revelation of the kindness and generous love of God our savior in Jesus’ public mission are what the whole Advent-Christmas season has been leading up to.
Those wiser than I about such things say that Isaiah’s words, typically translated as speak tenderly to Jerusalem [Isaiah 40:2], may more literally mean “to speak to the heart” – as in, “to convince.” The human heart was understood by Isaiah’s contemporaries as the organ of thought and reasoning, God is here being spoken of as trying to convince Israel of the reality of his concern.
It wasn’t just ancient Israel that had a hard time and so needed convincing, of course. Even the most cursory look at the state of the world belies any credible “happy days are here again” fantasies. If things really are changing for the better, if something new and wonderful really is happening here, it is going to take some convincing. It requires nothing less than the kindness and generous love of God our savior appearing personally in God’s Son.
In my opinion, the biggest stumbling block to faith is not so much science or evolution or any of that those things (important though those issues may genuinely be), but rather the all-too vivid contrast between what we actually experience and what we profess to believe - between the seemingly endless cycle of human suffering so many actually experience and this seemingly contrary-to-fact belief in a future full of hope, between our ordinary somewhat self-absorbed lives and being a people eager to do what is good, the belief that something new and wonderful really can happen and is happening, that the kindness and generous love of God our savior really have appeared. The fact is that we would never have had any reason to believe in such a thing or even hope for such a thing, we would never have known any of this, if God himself had not told us, if God’s Son had not actually shown us - by becoming one of us, which is what the Christmas season celebrates so seriously. We would never have known this, had it not been for the mission which the Son of God began on our behalf at his baptism, the same mission he continues in our world today – for us and among us - through his holy Church.
Homily for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 13, 2013.