Today is the last day of Christmas. To prove it, I am holding in my hand the last poinsettia of Christmas.The time for poinsettias is over. The same goes for Christmas trees. If you’ve been secretly holding onto your Christmas tree in a corner of your house until now, please let it go. Before the Fire Department has to deal with it in another way. Seriously, though, the Church has been holding onto Christmas for three full weeks now. Not in any secret way, but in a quite deliberate and public fashion no matter what anyone thinks.
Because Christmas is a season. A time whose power and beauty are so immense that we cannot unwrap it, unpack it , and admire it all in a single day. And then exchange it for something else on the next. And we dare not do so. Instead, we stretch out our Christmas to make it last as long as we can. Right from the birthday of Jesus through the feasts of the Holy Family, Mary the Mother of God (aka New Years Day), the Epiphany, and today.
Today, we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. A baptism is a bath. A ritual bath started by the cousin of Jesus, John the Baptizer, as a public gesture of a personal decision to ask for forgiveness and to change one’s life. In today’s Gospel from Chapter 3 of Matthew, we encounter Jesus standing in line with everyone else to accept a ritual cleansing, or baptism, from John.
John is both famous and feared. He is acknowledged— even by his enemies—as a genuine prophet. The first authentic prophet to be raised up among the Jewish people in centuries. His mission and ministry were credible because he walked the talk. His ascetic and prayer-filled lifestyle matched his words. John surprised, intrigued, and fascinated people. He did not seek to raise up an army or declare any sort of violent insurrection. Rather, he preached a life of repentance and of conversion. So people, hungry for authentic change in their lives, came to John. Even to the boondocks beyond the capital, Jerusalem. Hungry for change, they lined up to make a public acknowledgment of their sins and to accept baptism at his hands.
Now I can imagine that there were two lines for this baptism. The first line was the “IN” line: with a great number of people looking quite nervous and tentative. Sheepish, even. These were the obvious sinners-- the people about to receive their baptism from John. The other line was the “OUT” line: of people were those who had just been baptized. They were all grins as they were handed towels, dried off, and got ready to celebrate with their friends.
Jesus decided to get into line with everyone else. But He got into the “IN” line instead of the “OUT” line. Why in the world did Jesus get into the wrong group?
After all, Jesus was not a sinner. He did not need to be baptized. So, why did He get into the wrong line? This is where the Scriptures start to stutter. Members of the early Christian community certainly found the presence of Jesus in this scenario both embarrassing and disconcerting.
Matthew tells us there was a discussion between John and Jesus. John was reluctant. You bet he was. And Jesus was insistent. Stubbornly so. In the only way that one cousin can be with another. People were waiting, fidgeting. And they were at a stalemate.
Then Jesus said he had to be baptized so that ‘all righteousness might be fulfilled.’
What does that mean? He was talking in code. A ‘righteous’ person was one who was completely open to God’s will. More than that. A person who makes the decision to surrender completely to God’s Presence and Power in his life.
Jesus, in the 30th year of His life, had finally attained the status of full adulthood as a Jewish male. With His baptism, He proclaims for the first time His complete openness to God’s will—to the will of His Father—in His life. Finally, John relents and baptizes Jesus. And then, something radically new and extraordinary happens.
In this ritual breaking through from death to life, Jesus breaks through to heaven. The barrier between heaven and earth is pierced. And God, in the presence of the Spirit, acknowledges His Son. And by extension, God acknowledges and blesses us.
The baptism of Jesus changed absolutely everything. He didn’t get into the wrong line on purpose for His own sake. He did it for ours. He wanted to show that His greatest desire was to be right down here among us, close to us, as one of us. And that changes everything. It means our own baptism as Christians can never be the ritual, symbolic baptism of John. Ours is the baptism of Jesus. In Jesus. And through Jesus. So, when we are baptized—once and for all—the heavens open for us as God claims us as His own. Once and for all. Once and for always.
Our baptism is the beginning of our special life with God in the community of faith, the community of the friends of Jesus. It is not just a single, historical event. It’s more like a time-release capsule. It’s power is so strong and enduring that, like the prolonged Christmas season itself, it releases itself throughout our lives. Not just in a single spiritual photo op.
It is the power of identity. Of being and belonging. To God and to His People. Of knowing who we really are and whose we are, no matter what we do or say or what happens to us in our lives. It is so powerful that it transcends the petty differences that separate one group of Christians from another. After all, there is only one baptism in the Lord. It’s so powerful we can’t even take it away from ourselves.
We are first, last, most and always children of God, members of a family of faith. Baptism is our birthright as Christians and no one can ever take it away from us.
So that what the Father says to and about Jesus, the Father says to us and about us: “This is my beloved son. This is my beloved daughter. You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. In whom I am well pleased.” And He IS pleased with us. Very pleased indeed. So pleased that he sent His Son as our Shepherd. To be in our midst. Jesus was baptized and the heavens opened. But after that, Jesus stuck around and is still with us. It is our lasting Christmas gift on this last Christmas Day.