Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Isaiah 60:1-6 / John 1:29-34

"When did you receive Christ as your personal Savior?" "When were you born again?" These are not questions with which most Catholics are comfortable. The very phrasing of them comes from a world which we do not inhabit, and in which we feel out of place, breathing an alien and unfamiliar atmosphere. That Christ is our Savior, indeed our personal Savior, we gladly affirm. That we have been born again of water and the Spirit, this too we do not hesitate to own. Even so, we tend to put a distance between what we affirm about Christ and any direct, unambiguous, personal work of the Spirit in our hearts, testifying to the life-giving presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. Such language we leave to the Evangelicals and Pentecostalists.

This is unfortunate, and misses something crucial about our new life in baptism. Against our reticence stands the witness of John the Baptist. John, while affirming that Jesus was begotten before all ages, that He was before me, nonetheless recognizes that this truth about Jesus was not enough to bring him to a fulness of faith. I knew Him not, he says. Again, when presented with the manifest, external work of God giving witness to the identity and mission of the Word made flesh — I saw the Spirit coming down as a dove from heaven, and He remained upon Him — John repeats his assertion of ignorance: I knew Him not. It is only when he received the inner voice of the Father in his heart that what was true of Jesus Christ from before all ages and was made manifest in his baptism at the Jordan was made something real and salutary in John's heart and mind. He Who sent me to baptize with water said to me: He upon Whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, He it is that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. Now the Baptist's faith is real and effective, and now he can confess before the world not merely its preparation, but the very Gospel itself: And I saw: and I gave testimony that this is the Son of God.

To be sure, we do not require direct visual access to the earthly ministry of Jesus to come to saving faith. After all, John the Baptist had such access to Christ at his baptism, but this alone was not enough. Moreover, the Baptist reminds us that his own ministry serves as a kind of evangelism: that He may be made manifest in Israel, therefore I am come baptizing with water. We can come to faith as truly and surely through the testimony of the apostles as recorded in the New Testament, in the witness of the Church through the ages, in her present teaching office, and indeed in the holy lives of those who are born again in water and the Holy Spirit. However, what we cannot do without is what the Baptist could not do without — the voice of the Father who sent us testifying that this Jesus is the Lamb of God ... Who taketh away the sin of the world.

This is why we must be open and attentive to the working of faith in our hearts. All of our faithful observance of the sacraments and devotions, of reading the Scriptures and of attending to the Church's teachers and preachers — all of these things and more besides are helpful to us to the extent that they animate more fully and powerfully our inner quiet and attentiveness to hear the voice of the Father in our hearts. O God, Whose only-begotten Son hath appeared in the substance of our flesh: grant, we beseech Thee, that by Him, in Whom outwardly we recognize our likeness, we may deserve to be inwardly created anew.

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