We conclude our celebration of this “festival of the Incarnation” – that is, the Christmas Season – with this beautiful Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Remember: the central mystery of this season of Christmas is the mystery of the Incarnation – the fact that God – the infinite, eternal God, Who created everything and everyone – at a particular moment in history, chose to become human. Jesus takes on our flesh in the womb of Mary, is born at Bethlehem, revealed to the shepherds, the wise men, and the nations, and today He is baptized in the Jordan by John.
In this event – Christ’s baptism – He sort of sneaks up on us, as Luke recounts it: “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying…”. Jesus is just “there,” with everyone else. He is barely noticed before going down into the waters. How often is this the case – that Jesus among us is barely noticed? How many times have we been rude to someone or ignored someone’s need and afterward wondered, “Couldn’t I have responded more kindly?” That is Jesus among us – ignored, forgotten, neglected. It happens more often than I’d like to admit.
However, this situation soon changes. After Jesus came up from the waters, “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.’”
You cannot ignore that! This divine “singling out” of Christ means that neither He nor those around could simply walk away from that event unaffected. Those gathered – and we – are forced to make a choice. Either we listen to that heavenly voice and try to learn more about this Jesus guy – try to understand who He is, what He has to say, where He is going and where He is leading us; or, we ignore Him – just like we did before we met Him, as if He never existed.
The Incarnation makes a specific demand of humanity. If Jesus had simply appeared out of nowhere like some heavenly genie, taught, healed, even suffered and died, we could still say that we don’t have to imitate Him. After all, He is God, isn’t He? And I am not. However, because of this fact that we celebrate – the fact that Jesus is human, is one of us, we have no excuse not to follow – other than we simply don’t want to.
Now, all this is nice, “heady” stuff. But the danger that I and other preachers can fall into is that we don’t give concrete ways that we can follow Jesus in our own lives. This is why this current Jubilee Year of Mercy is so special for us. Not only do we focus on how God’s mercy has sustained us, loved us, and forgiven us; we also focus on ways that we can make that same mercy real in our own lives. In other words, how can we make God’s love incarnate in our life? The Works of Mercy are beautiful guides to doing just this.
I am not going to tell you exactly what to do. Part of the reason is that I am also figuring this out for myself. So let’s learn together – as a parish family, as disciples. We can show one another what God’s love looks like in real, tangible ways. So, each week when you come to church, we will have a board where you and your families can write what Work of Mercy you have been able to do for others. Did you bring some food for our Food Pantry or Bread and Fishes? That’s one. Did you comfort a friend? There’s another. Visit someone who was sick? Post it!
This is not meant to be bragging. Rather, it is our way, as a parish, to teach one another what God’s love actually looks like. We can do this!
As Jesus is baptized, He embraces our humanity – completely, in all its messiness and sinfulness. He is one of us, and we can be like Him. The Incarnation means that we cannot ignore God in our midst – Emmanuel. It’s not just something that we recognize in the last weeks of December and early January. It is something that we celebrate all year. God has revealed Himself to us; our response is faith, and that faith is active.
May we learn these lessons of love together. And may we share those lessons with all in our community. This is our mission, given by Our Father, Who is also well pleased with us.