Orbiting Dicta

The Baptism of the Lord: Taking on the Debt of Sin

Today’s commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus marks the conclusion of the Christmas cycle with the event that inaugurated Jesus’ public ministry. The commercial world marked the finale over a week ago, with the January sales that form the climax of the most important sales period of the year. The carols had already fallen silent on mall sound systems and radio broadcasts around December 26th, and most of the Christmas decorations were gone before New Years, or by Twelfth Night (AKA the Feast of the Epiphany) at the latest. And then the reckoning.

This year, U.S. households appear to have spent an average of $1,496 during the holidays, about $40 less than last year, despite the much-touted “robust economy.” According to Deloitte estimates, “about a third of that figure represents the average amount spent on Christmas gifts and gift cards: $511. The remaining $985 goes towards costs like entertaining, going out, and buying outfits to wear during festive celebrations.” Again, about a $14 decrease from 2018. [If curious, consult https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/industry/retail-distribution/holiday-retail-sales-consumer-survey.html] In a jittery economy like ours, every penny counts.

Even so, U.S. retail sales in 2019 increased by around 4.5 percent to a record-breaking $1.002 trillion, a figure approaching the GDP of Indonesia and much greater than that of the Netherlands or Saudi Arabia. While over 15% of Americans believed their Christmas spending would leave them in debt, 72% were sure their holiday spending would not. But LendEDU, a student loan refinancing company, reported that big holiday shoppers (average spending around $2100, some 60% of the shopping population) expected to be around $554 in debt after the holidays were over. According to CensusWide, while 14.2% of Americans try to reduce money spent on Christmas by selling possessions, 5.8% borrow from friends and family and 4.2% get loans to cover Christmas spending. [For all this and more, see ‘Christmas Spending Statistics: Deck the Halls with Boughs of Money,’ https://fortunly.com/statistics/christmas-spending-statistics/#gref]

Thus passeth the commercial Christmas fest of 2019. What Jesus would make of all this is anyone’s guess, although he had quite a lot to say about how wealth should be managed to benefit the neediest. I suspect that he would not be overly impressed with the American way of celebrating his birth.

In terms of today’s feast, Jesus’ baptism was reckoned so important a moment in the gospel tradition that it is described in all four

Is 42:1-4,6-7
Acts 10:34-38
Mt 3:13-17

gospels, a multiple attestation that scripture scholars consider highly significant. It is also referred to in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles appointed for today and finds mention elsewhere in that work.

Three aspects of Jesus’ baptism are singled out in today’s gospel because they point to who and what Jesus was and, just as importantly, who and what we are as Christians. The first is the admission of sin. The second is his anointing as Messiah, and the third his proclamation as Son of God.

The first makes sense for us, but even struck John the Baptist as incongruous in Jesus’ regard. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” [Matt. 3:14]. But by being baptized along with everyone else, Jesus places himself solidly in the midst of sinners. He identifies with them. And thus, he can act for them and, as John’s Gospel has it, take away the sins of the world by assuming them. It is the basis for the recognition of Jesus as the Redeemer. St. Paul’s even earlier testimony is clear: “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” [Rom 8:3-4].

The gospels also recognize that at his baptism, Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit, alluded to in the beautiful reading from the Book of Isaiah – one which Jesus himself cited in his fateful inaugural sermon shortly after he began his public mission. It is at his baptism that Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the ‘Christ’ — words which mean in Hebrew and Greek “the anointed one.” In Jewish tradition, the Messiah was anointed to identify him as the one through whom God would save the Chosen People. And that is also why every new Christian is anointed with holy oil when baptized.

The third element contains the deepest mystery of all. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report a strange phenomenon as Jesus came up out of the water — a voice from heaven proclaims him “Son,” and something “like” a dove hovers over him, a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

We should not mistake the significance of all this in our own baptism. A Voice may not have come from heaven, and it’s not likely that any doves descended, but at our baptism each of us is recognized and proclaimed as God’s very child. And not only “a” child of God, but by reason of our identification with Jesus in his baptism, death, and resurrection, “the” child, the one Son of God. We are members of the one body of Christ. This is the greatest mystery of all, and most likely one we hardly think of at all.

Today’s second reading doesn’t seem to have much to do with any of this at first glance – but it is part of the story of the first non-Jewish converts to Christ, the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family and household. But it is very relevant, especially that wonderful saying, ““God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him” [Acts 10:34-35]. Because Peter has just realized after a revelation from God that no one is to be refused baptism — everyone is called to Christ. And so the great door of salvation was thrown open to all peoples everywhere and forever.