This Sunday we launch into Ordinary Time with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
The Lectionary is a little confusing on this feast. The three liturgical years have their own Gospels for the day. But the first two readings are listed in general, and then there are alternatives given for years B and C. I can’t make out why there are alternatives – but I will hear consider the options for Year B, since we looked at the Year A/Standard option last year.
Basically, the question for us as we shift from Christmas to Ordinary Time is, what does this mean for me? We have spent a couple weeks focusing on Jesus, and that is very good. But so what? What does that mean for me? What do I take with me into the year?
All three of our readings play out this question, which is the central dynamic of the theology of grace: there is Jesus, and there is me. Salvation is all the work of Jesus – and it happens in me, so that it is also my work. Both Jesus and me.
The focus here is on Jesus’s Baptism. Here is our first coming together of God and man. John’s Baptism is a human baptism, a work of man. Jesus does not scorn that – though he is infinitely beyond it – but he enters into it.
Looking a little deeper, John’s Baptism is not only a human work itself, but it is a call to works – a call to repentance. By itself, John’s Baptism is the the most straightforward works righteousness, or even Pelagianism. He tells us to prepare the way for God – think of the absurdity of that! And he tells us to repent, to change our own ways.
On one level Jesus triumphs over that. In fact, John himself knows that Jesus will triumph over it. He says, “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.” Notice the description: not only is John unworthy of Jesus, he is not as “mighty.” John can’t make repentance happen. He calls us to change, but he can’t bring that change about.
The bizarre thing – in a sense, this is the very heart of the Gospel – is that Jesus enters into that call to righteousness. He does not say, “oh, let me do it for you.” He doesn’t say, “there is no works righteousness.” Rather, Jesus is baptized: he joins the call to repentance, and thereby transforms it from within.
Jesus’s Baptism brings the Holy Spirit descending from above. He brings divine sonship, and the opportunity to be “pleasing” to God.
On man’s side is the call to repentance. On God’s side is divine filiation. But those go together: divine filiation does not leave us the same: it changes us. By itself, the call to repentance is completely inadequate. But it is part of the work of Jesus, part of how Jesus transforms us.
Our reading from Isaiah gives another version of the same dynamic. The first paragraph is like John the Baptist: “Why spend your money for what is not bread, your wages for what fails to satisfy?” This is put in a positive way, but it is the call to repentance: only God can satisfy! Live that way!
And, too, we are called to missionary activity: “so shall you summon a nation you knew not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you.” You summon them! They will run to you!
The second paragraph continues: “seek the Lord while he may be found. . . . Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked man his thoughts.” Repent! You do it! Change yourselves!
But then comes a metaphor going the other way: “just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful.” The “rain and snow” are God’s grace, the Holy Spirit. Our repentance does not begin with us: it is the fruit of God’s work in us. Yes, we are called to repent. But it is God who gives us the grace to do it.
And again in the First Letter of John: He begins, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God.” Salvation is by faith! But its fruit is works: “when we love God and obey his commandments.” It doesn’t begin there, but it does fructify in our works.
“Not by water alone”: no, Baptism’s call to repentance is fruitless by itself. But neither “by blood alone”: it is Jesus’s blood that gives power to the waters – that gives the Holy Spirit to the waters, so that our call to repentance may bear fruit.
Where is God calling us to let him change us? How can we bring our sins to his transforming touch?