Sunday, January 10, 2016

the baptism of our Lord: a lesson in prayer and humility

May I speak in the name of the Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen

Today is the third Sunday after Christmas Day and the first after the feast of the Epiphany of the Christ-child to the Gentiles. It is the Sunday when we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan by his cousin, St John the Baptist, who is also called John the Fore-runner because of his prophetic work in preparing the way of the Lord. His role in God's plan for the salvation of mankind is described in all four of the Gospels; and it is a role he willingly accepted. Sinful pride and worldly ambition were not part of this saint's character; there is no sense of resentment that another will stand on his shoulders, as it were, and do even greater things. And this is because John sees more clearly than most. Why should any man take undue pride in what he has achieved, or fret that another may seem to gain the glory for his efforts, when both do God's work, and all is done for the greater glory of God?

And so St John was not perturbed by the arrival of Jesus by the Jordan, that the one whose sandal he was not fit to undo had arrived, that the time had come when he must grow lesser and the Christ greater; for this was all part of God's plan, and he was God's obedient servant.

But however great the humility we see displayed by St John, we see even greater displayed by our Lord. For the one who is without sin has come to be baptised. Not because he has any need of baptism, because he is without sin. But because by his baptism he consecrates the waters of the world that we might be sanctified by them in our own baptism. Also because he wishes to show himself in complete solidarity with sinful humanity; and because each man and woman ever born needs this baptism, the only man ever born who does not will also submit to it – both to show how fully human God-made-man is and to lead us by his example. All Christians are to be as Christ-like as possible; and so if Christ will submit to baptism, then so must we.

That may well seem to be a moot point. We are all here, except perhaps for one or two infants among us, already baptised – most of us when we were still babies. How then are we to follow Christ's example, since we cannot be re-baptised, the sacrament being unrepeatable, a literally once in a life time event? We submit to this baptism by accepting the implications of what it means for us to have baptised into Christ, and by allowing what was begun in us at our baptism to grow and grow all through our lives.

There are two ways that we may more perfectly do this that are suggested by our Gospel reading today. The first is to remember that while our Lord specifically encouraged us to be baptised by his own, he also thereby modelled for us the Christian virtue of humility. We must therefore always keep before our eyes the humility our Saviour showed on this occasion, and many, many others, and always strive to emulate it. Humility helps us to be more obedient to God's will; that obedience helps us to follow his teachings more completely and imitate his Son more nearly; and by the living of that more Christ-like life we will grow in holiness as the Holy Spirit does his work in us and helps us on our road to heaven.

The second way is to follow the example of a tiny detail that we have in St Luke's account of the Baptism of our Lord. He alone records the following moment from that occasion: 'Now when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.' Jesus was praying as the Holy Spirit descended upon him, something that is easily missed as neither St Matthew or St Mark include it … and which therefore also serves to highlight the importance of the way in which the varying gospel narratives complement and support each other. If it were not for St Matthew, we would not know of the conversation that Jesus and St John had prior to the baptism in which John protested his unworthiness; St Mark tells us that it was from Nazareth that our Lord came to the Jordan; and St Luke, as already mentioned, that our Lord's immediate reaction to his baptism was to pray and that he spent the few moments between it and the descent of the Holy Spirit in prayer. 

This, and the many other examples of how our Lord frequently spent time in prayer we have in the Gospels, reminds us of the importance of prayer in our own lives. St Paul exhorts us to unceasing prayer … something that can be achieved by most if they begin each day by prayerfully dedicating every thought, word, and deed to God in advance … making thereby not only the whole day a prayer to the Lord … but also, hopefully, helping us to avoid consciously committing wrong actions … for why would we deliberately offer what we know to be sinful to God?

And, I think it reasonable to say, that the two suggestions we have from today's Gospel are mutually reinforcing. The person who grows in humility will naturally wish to spend more time in prayer to God; and the one who spends much time in prayer will unavoidably grow in humility as the time spent in conversation with the Divine can only serve to make profound the understanding of how great Almighty God is, how little we are in comparison, and how good and gracious he is in all he does for us.

And so as I finish I pray that our reading today of St Luke's account of the Baptism of our Lord will not only remind you of your own baptisms, and all you have gained thereby, but also serve to guide you to more perfect obedience of our Lord by following the example of our Lord on the occasion of his own baptism by leading a life of ever increasing prayerful humility. Amen

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