A New Beginning
Baptism of the Lord. Fr Richard Ounsworth explores the relationship between Christ’s identity and his mission.
Today’s feast marks both an ending and a beginning. It is the final celebration of the Christmas period, a fact that is emphasised by the Divine Office for today being the same as that for the Epiphany; and yet it is also the first Sunday of ‘Ordinary Time’.
It is appropriate that this transition from Christmas to Ordinary Time be marked by the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. That event, which we hear about in today’s Gospel, was the beginning of Christ’s active ministry in the world, and it culminates in the testimony of the Father to the identity of the Son. It is this identity that we celebrate during Christmas: the miraculous truth that Jesus Christ is the true Son of God, the image of the invisible God, Word-made-flesh and Splendour of the Father. He is the beloved Son with whom the Father is well pleased. In other words, the person of Jesus Christ is constituted by the perfect love of the Father for the Son.
And because we have God’s own testimony to the divine identity of Jesus, our Christmas faith is based on that testimony, on the authentic self-revelation of God, and not on human opinion.
But because Jesus’s whole being is founded upon the love of God, his divine identity that we celebrate at Christmas necessarily leads to his ministry. For Jesus was not born simply in order to exist, to give us the doctrine of the incarnation: he was born to serve. As he himself says, the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. It is vital for us to affirm that Jesus Christ is God-with-us, and so we have done over the last two weeks. But we must also affirm that he is God-for-us. How could he not be? Jesus serving life and saving death is, we may say, the playing out of his divine identity on the stage of human history. The ministry of Christ, in which he gives his life for us, is what a human life looks like when that life is lived by one whose existence is perfect love, just as his death shows us how perfect love reaches its end, and in dying proves itself stronger than death.
Just as Christ’s death was a self-surrender carried out in perfect solidarity with the despised and rejected of this world, so his life among us begins with an act of perfect solidarity with the despised and rejected, when Christ allows himself to be baptised in the Jordan. For this baptism is a symbolic passing through the waters that guard the entrance to the Promised Land. In his solidarity with the outcasts of this world, Christ who by right of his divinity has a heavenly home makes himself an exile like us, so as to lead us back from exile, out of the wilderness, to our new home with the Father.
And our journey home too begins with baptism, when we are adopted as sons and daughters of God. This means that what the Father says to Christ in today’s Gospel he also says to us: you are my beloved child. Today we hear from God the words that must transform our lives, because these words of love become the centre of our being now that we are a new creation in Christ. Just like Jesus, our identity now is God’s love for us; and this love is no longer that of a superior for an inferior as we might love our pets. Rather, it is the perfect, heart-breaking love of a parent for a child.
Therefore, as Christ’s identity drives him into his mission of loving ministry in solidarity with us, so our new identity in solidarity with him must drive us into mission. Today the call is renewed for us to live lives of perfect service as Christ did, and we are strengthened for that service by the knowledge that, whatever joy and delight we have ever experienced in loving anyone, God’s delight in us is infinitely greater.