This feast day, the Baptism of Jesus and the Christmas feast, and we now begin to celebrate the public life of Jesus after we have celebrated the mysteries of his incarnation, his birth, and his early life. As we begin to look upon Jesus in his adult and public life, the first thing that Luke in the Gospel wants us to be aware of is that Jesus is truly the Son of God. Just before the baptism, Luke tells us, "The people were wondering about John's identity. Could he be the Messiah?"
The Baptism of the Lord
This is John the Baptist, the one who had been preaching so fervently, drawing so many followers. But then John answered and told the people, "I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming will do much more. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. As for me, I am not worthy to untie his sandal." What Luke is making very, very clear (and it was important at the time that he was writing) is that Jesus is truly the Messiah and also the Son of God because at the time that Luke was writing, there were those who were still following a cult of John the Baptist.
So Luke wants to make it very clear that John was one who came to announce the good news about the light coming into the world, but was not himself the light. Luke shows us (and is preaching to his community at the time) that Jesus is the Messiah; he is the one we are to follow. John says about himself, "I must become less and less. He must become greater and greater." The first thing that we reflect on then as we begin to follow the public life of Jesus is that we are following one who is not only one of us, like us in every way except sin, but also the one who is the Messiah, the Son of God.
But also now as we celebrate this Baptism of Jesus, it's a good occasion for us to remind ourselves about our own baptism and what that means for us. We might think first of all of a cleansing, which it is. But even more importantly, and what comes through in the Scriptures more clearly, especially through St. Paul's letter to the church at Rome, "When you went down into the water you died and were buried with Christ. You came up out of the water alive with the very spirit of Jesus." You become a son or daughter of God.
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As sons and daughters of God, as followers of Jesus, we are to live according to a certain way. This is the most important thing about our baptism. We become a disciple, a follower. In the baptismal ceremony itself, there's a very important part of it that, perhaps, we are not even at the present time aware of. If you've been to a baptism recently, you'll remember when the minister anoints the person being baptized with the chrism. The words that the minister says are, "Just as Jesus was anointed priest, prophet, and king, so may you live always as a member of his body sharing everlasting life." Think about what that means.
Each one of us at our baptism was anointed like Jesus as priest, prophet, and king. Those are the roles that we are to carry out then in following Jesus. We have this understanding, I think most of us, that the priest is the one who stands at the altar and through certain words and signs performs religious rights. But all of us in our baptism share in the priesthood of Jesus. That means that when we come to the Eucharist, it isn't just the priest who is offering the Mass, it's all of us together.
That's why it's so important when we come that we prepare ourselves by trying to read the Scriptures ahead of time, finding out what is going to be proclaimed so that we can, in a very clear way, offer the Eucharist together with the whole community. That's why we should join in the hymns, join in the prayers, be part of offering the Eucharist, not simply a spectator. I think many of us over the years have allowed ourselves to be more of a spectator than one actually performing our priestly duty in offering the Holy Eucharist, celebrating the Mass together with the ordained priest who presides.
But all of us share in that priesthood of Jesus. We are a priest together with him. Besides offering the Mass, in our everyday life we continue to perform priestly duties. If we listen carefully to what, for example, the prophet Micah said when someone asked him, "What am I supposed to offer?" Micah said, "It's been explained to you very clearly what is your offering when you come before God: To act justly, to love tenderly, to walk humbly with the Lord, your God."
That summarizes our daily activities as priests, as followers of Jesus: To act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly after the Lord our God. If we begin to think of ourselves acting in a priestly fashion in that way, every day of our life, certainly we would be carrying out the work of Jesus, bringing justice and love, tenderness into our world. But besides being a priest to our baptism and bringing these offerings before God, we are also to be the prophet, the one who speaks for God, not just in words, but by the way we live.
That's where our first lesson today is so important. It's this passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah, "Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight. I have put my spirit upon him. He will bring justice to the nation." Bring justice—how? "He does not shout or raise his voice, cry aloud in the streets. A broken reed he will not crush, nor quench the wavering flame. He will make justice appear in truth."
This servant of God, the prophet proclaiming God's message and bringing justice to all the nations, bringing peace into the world does it not through power and might. When the prophet speaks about crying aloud in the streets, he's talking about a call to arms. The prophet of God doesn't call to arms; instead, he acts gently, lovingly. His images are beautiful—the broken branch, or broken reed. If you wanted to heal, you have to handle it tenderly, be very careful as a gardener to make it grow once more.
Or if a flame is about to go out, if you want it to burst into fullness you have to blow on it very gently to make it break into a full flame. That's what the prophet does and brings at the same time justice to all the world. That's our role; we're priests and prophets. We are to bring God's goodness, God's love, God's tenderness, and God's justice into our world, in our every day life, but then also king, ruler. When we hear about this, it's important to remember what Jesus said about leadership, "If you want to be the first you must take the role of the last—be the very slave of the others."
Where does Jesus show that kind of leadership most of all besides his every day life where he's always reaching out to the poor, going about doing good? At the Last Supper when he takes the role of a servant, a slave, gets down and washes the feet of his disciples. What he says at the end of that incident (it's the same thing we hear about what he says after changing the bread and wine into his body and blood.), "Do this in memory of me."
He's saying again to all of us, "Be the servant in our world. Be the humble one who reaches out to serve others." Don't we have this extraordinary example of all of this in Pope Francis? When he celebrates (if you happen to be able to watch when he was here), he celebrates with joy. He calls all the people to share that joy with him. When he proclaims the message of the Word of God, he proclaims a message about reaching out to the poor and bringing justice into our world.
He, in fact, also does the work of the slave, the servant. He makes it a point on Holy Thursday every year to go into a prison and wash the feet of the people, to imitate the way of Jesus. Each one of us is called to be priest, prophet, and king, but to serve not as a ruler with might and power and armies, but only as one who serves out of love. As we begin now this new church year and start to reflect on the public life of Jesus, I hope each of us will understand that we are baptized followers of Jesus.
Each week we try to learn more about what it means to be priest, prophet, and king to fulfill our baptism just as Jesus carried out his baptism through his public preaching, through the giving of himself every day, and ultimately laying down his life out of love for all of us. We are called through this feast of the Baptism of Jesus to remind ourselves of our baptism, and to commit ourselves now as fully as we can to follow Jesus as priest, prophet, and king.
[Homily given at St. Philomena Parish, Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]