Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Baptism of the Lord

(Isaiah 55: 1-11; I John 5: 1-9; Mark 1: 7-11)

We can see "ofertas” or “offers" on the streets of any Latin American city. These are bargains to buy meats, clothes, soaps, and almost anything. However, we cannot take advantage of all of them. We have a limited amount of money. We want to buy only what is worth the most to us. For this reason, the offer in the first reading interests us.

The prophet Isaiah presents the new covenant that God makes with his people as a street offer. God will grant us what we need to live truly well. He says the benefits of the covenant are more desirable than "rich fare." He describes these benefits as if they were bread, wine, and milk. But they are really spiritual helps: His love, His protection, and His Holy Spirit.  Best of all, they won't cost us anything. It is an offer that we should not overlook.

We will not have to pay money, but we will have to repent of prejudices and forbidden secrets. Through the pandemic of this past year, God has left us traces of these faults. The difficulty of staying home has taught us how we have distanced ourselves from our families. The spread of the virus by associating freely has shown us the risk of our independence. Perhaps the hardest lesson has been the proximity of death. We may not have as much time as we thought to reconcile ourselves with both God and neighbor.

We find it difficult to fulfill the terms of this covenant until we consider its greatest asset. God will send us His own Son to enlighten our minds and strengthen our wills. The second reading lists three testimonies to his presence. First, his baptism in water has taught us that he has really come as a human. His attention to the poor will guide our way to justice. Second, his bloody crucifixion has gained for us forgiveness of sins. There is no reason to worry about past misdeeds since they are abolished. Finally, the Holy Spirit has been released to us through his resurrection. Aided by the Spirit, Christians perform works of mercy testifying to Christ’s presence in his Body, the Church.

The baptism of Euphemius, a boy who lived in the fifth century, can help us understand the new covenant.  It is the morning of Easter before dawn. Euphemius and other catechumens are in the vestibule of the baptistery. Although it is cold, they are told to undress. Then Euphemius and his companions are directed to face the west where darkness consumes the sunlight. Each one says forcefully that he denounces the king of shadows and death. Then they turn to the rising sun. Each professes their acceptance of Christ, the king of light and life, whose resurrection has conquered death. After being covered with oil, they enter the interior of the baptistery. They look up at the mosaic of Jesus standing in the Jordan with John pouring water over him. The mosaic shows the hand of God the Father pointing to the dove-like Holy Spirit hovering over Jesus. Seeing this, Euphemius and his companions realize that they are being formed in the living image of this mosaic.

Each one individually gets into the warm water. The bishop asks the one standing in the water if he believes first in the Father, then in the Son, and finally in the Holy Spirit. Each time the person answers “yes,” the deacon pushes him backward into the water. After the three immersions, the baptized person comes out of the water and fragrant oil is lavishly poured over his head. He is then dressed in a white tunic and waits for the others to finish the rite. When everyone finishes, the baptized enter the church together. People are singing: “Christ is risen from the dead. By his death he has crushed death and has given life to those who lay in the tomb.” None of the baptized could deny these words because they have just felt the force of their reality.

Today our baptisms are not as dramatic as that of Euphemius and companions. But the reality is the same. Baptism forms us in the likeness of Christ so that we may reflect his love in the world.