Baptism and Incorporation into the Son of God
January 12, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Baptism of the Lord
Reading I (Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7) Reading II (Acts 10:34-38)
Gospel (St. Mark 1:7-11)
Today, as we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, the question that always comes up in people’s minds is “Why would Jesus be baptized? John, after all, came to preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Jesus is God, therefore, He had no sin and He had no reason to repent, so what would be the reason for Jesus to be baptized?” The saints tell us that one of the reasons He was baptized was not because He needed to be made holy by Baptism, but rather He needed to make holy the waters of Baptism. As the old saying goes, “No one can give what he doesn’t have,” and so Jesus came into this world to take away our sins and to give to us the Holy Spirit.
In all three of the readings today, we hear about the Holy Spirit. In the Prophet Isaiah, God (speaking about His Suffering Servant from the forty-second chapter) says about the servant that upon him rests the spirit: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, upon whom my spirit rests.” In the second reading, the angels went to Peter to call him to go to the house of Cornelius (who was a pagan but yet he believed in God) and to baptize them. As Peter’s sermon began, he said, “I take it you know what has been told throughout the region beginning in Galilee with the baptism John preached and how Jesus was filled with power and the Holy Spirit.” Then, of course, in the Gospel reading, we hear what happened at Our Lord’s Baptism and how the heavens were torn open and the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove and rested upon Him and the voice of the Father was heard: You are My beloved Son; upon You My favor rests. And so we have a revelation of the Most Holy Trinity, of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – the voice of the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Son of God.
Part of the purpose of Our Lord’s Baptism then, as we see in the first reading, is that He is going to be made by God as a covenant of the people. And if He is going to be a covenant then we have to somehow be incorporated into Him because one must be incorporated into the covenant in order to share in it. For the people of old, for instance, it was in circumcision that they were incorporated into the covenant of Abraham. There are numerous covenants, six of them in the Old Testament and one in the New – universal covenants, that is. In the New Covenant, the important thing for us to understand is that Jesus Himself is the covenant. We see it in the first reading today and if you look in Isaiah 49 you are going to see the exact same thing, that the Servant is a covenant to the people. And so it is different, in this case, from any other covenant.
As I pointed out many times before, God made a covenant with Adam; He made a covenant with Noah; He made a covenant with Abraham; He made a covenant with Moses; He made a covenant with David. Jesus is the covenant. He did not make a covenant with Jesus – Jesus is the covenant. This is also made very clear if you read Saint Luke’s Gospel at the very beginning, as Our Lady goes to visit Elizabeth and she is carrying Jesus in her womb. The thing that Saint Luke is trying to make very clear to us is that Our Lady is the Ark of the Covenant. The old Ark of the Covenant carried within it the tablets of the covenant with Moses, but Our Lady carried within herself the New and Eternal Covenant. You see the same thing if you look in the Book of Revelation at the very end of Chapter 11 and the beginning of Chapter 12 when the heavens are opened and the Ark of the Covenant is seen. What does it look like? A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars, as she wails aloud in pain to give birth. It is Our Lady who is the Ark of the Covenant and Jesus Himself is the covenant.
Now, as I mentioned, with each covenant one must be incorporated into the covenant, and it is no different with the New Covenant. We must be incorporated into the covenant, and that covenant is Jesus. So Our Lord, in being baptized, showed Himself to be the Servant upon whom the Spirit rests. He showed Himself to be the covenant and gave to us the means by which we would be incorporated into the covenant because it was at His Baptism that the Holy Spirit descended upon Him and the voice of the Father was heard. In Baptism, now for us, it is more than just the baptism of John, which was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin – which we certainly need – but it is more than that. Jesus commanded as His very last commandment before He ascended into Heaven to go out and teach all nations and to baptize them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It is in this that we are baptized and we become members of the covenant. We share in the covenant Who is Jesus Christ.
That is why so many times in this very pulpit I have said that in Baptism we become members of Christ, sharers of the divine life – all the virtues that are given, all the gifts that are given. The Holy Spirit has descended upon each one of us at our baptism and even though the voice of the Father was not heard nor was the Holy Spirit seen in the form of a dove, nonetheless, the same reality is true that at the moment we are baptized and all sin is removed from our soul, our heavenly Father looks upon each one of us and says of us, “You are My son, you are My daughter, on you My favor rests.” It is not quite in the same manner as He would have said that regarding His Son Jesus, yet at the same time, because we are members of Jesus Christ at the moment that we are baptized, it is spoken of us in that same manner that we have been given the dignity to share in the divine life. Therefore, we are made members of the covenant at the moment we are baptized.
So in being baptized, Jesus then is showing to us the means by which each one of us will be incorporated into the covenant and He is demonstrated clearly as the covenant, which the people would not have understood. Even Saint John the Baptist gave witness to that, he said, “I myself did not recognize Him,” and then went on to testify that God had revealed to him that the One upon Whom he would see the Spirit descend like a dove is the One Who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. It was essential, not only for John the Baptist to know the One Whom he was preaching, but for each one of us to be able to know the truth not only of what happened on the day Our Lord was baptized but the truth for each one of us of what happens on the day we are baptized.
We are able to look back at the Old Testament and see what God prophesied regarding the New Covenant. He did promise numerous times that there would be a New Covenant. Perhaps one of the clearest and most famous passages in the Old Testament and one that is very easily placed in memory because of the manner in which God revealed it is Jeremiah 31:31. All you need to do is remember the Trinity: Three Persons in one God – Jeremiah 31:31. It foretells the New Covenant, that God is going to make a new covenant and that the Gentiles and the Jews would be sharers in the covenant. It was no secret that there would be a new covenant; the only question was “How and Whom?” It would not make any sense to a Jewish mind that a person would be a covenant. God made covenants with His people; He did not make a single person a covenant to the people. And so even though they could see what Isaiah was saying, it did not make a whole lot of sense to them.
Until we see what happened at the Baptism of Our Lord, and until we reflect at what happened at our own baptism, it would not make a whole lot of sense to us either, except that for us to be incorporated into the covenant does not simply make us the people of God the way the Old Covenant did with the people of Israel – we are made members of the only Son of God, literally made into children of God because we are incorporated into His Son. Not just incorporated into a generic people that are called by the Name of God, but we literally become members of the Son of God. We share in the divine life; we share in the divine nature. The Holy Spirit is given to us along with the theological virtues, the cardinal virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit; all of that is poured into our hearts. We become members of the Church; we become Christian people; we become members of Jesus Christ; we become priest, prophet, and king. All these things happen at the very moment that we are baptized because we are baptized into Jesus, not just into a generic people of God. That is what it means that He is the covenant. The only way we are going to be able to share in eternal life is if we share in the Person Who is eternal life, and that is Jesus Christ.
And so the dignity that God has given to us is understood only when we recognize that we are members of Jesus Christ, and that He is the covenant and we are incorporated into Him as sharers in the covenant. This is something we need to reflect on, and reflect on it often. Think about your dignity. It was not enough for God that He made you in His image and likeness; it was not enough for Him simply to call you one of His own; it was not enough for Him simply to offer you eternal life; it was not enough for Him to simply forgive your sins; it was not even enough for Him to offer you the Holy Spirit – but He made you a member of His own Son, Who is the Second Person of the Trinity and the Son of Mary. You are a member of Jesus Christ. Think about your dignity. God became man born of Mary, as we celebrated just a few weeks ago, and our dignity at that moment rose infinitely from being the pinnacle of God’s creation and the crown jewel in His crown of creation to suddenly having a dignity that was absolutely inconceivable to humanity that we would be incorporated into God, that we would share the divine life and the divine nature, that God would become man so that man could become more like God. And so in the birth of Jesus, in the Incarnation at the conception of Jesus, the dignity of our humanity was raised up to a divine level. But that was not even enough for God. He will never be outdone in generosity, so He has given to each one of us an infinite gift, not only to be able to look upon the face of Jesus and say, “What an unbelievable and unimaginable thing that God would become man!” – no, that was not enough for God that He would share in your nature – God was going to allow you to share in His nature. That is something that is even more incomprehensible to us than God sharing in our nature, but it is the truth; it is the reality of who you are.
So I highly recommend to you that you come often before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and that you reflect upon this mystery, not only the mystery of Jesus Christ, God made man, but the mystery of yourself, man made god, on the mystery that you celebrate every time you receive Holy Communion. Every covenant has a sign, and the Eucharist is the sign of the covenant into which we are incorporated at our own baptism. Jesus is the covenant and He is the sign of the covenant. We celebrate that regularly. The privilege and the dignity which is ours is something upon which we must meditate profoundly and deeply.
We need to be very careful that we do not simply take this truth for granted. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” the old saying goes, and if it becomes so commonplace for us that we just come forward and receive Jesus in Communion without giving it a second thought, what difference does it make to us? What does it reflect within us? What does it do to us and for us? But if we understand that that is the sign of the covenant, that it is our union with Christ, that we were incorporated into that union at Baptism –incorporate means “in the body”; we were made members of the Mystical Body of Christ – then we receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ so that we are able to celebrate and renew the covenant which is ours in Baptism. That is what is happening inside of you every single time you receive Holy Communion. You are renewing your commitment that you made in Baptism to reject Satan and to choose God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and His Church, to profess your faith in Christ and in everything that He is and in everything that He taught.
This is why we must unite ourselves also with Him in prayer to reflect upon the reality of His humility in becoming one of us and to reflect upon the reality of our exaltation in becoming one with Him. That is the reason of His Baptism: so that He could be shown as the covenant to the people, so that we would understand our dignity in recognizing the covenant into which we are incorporated, and that we would understand more fully what it is that we do every time we celebrate and renew that covenant in Holy Communion. Think about that. Not only on the day that you were baptized, but every time that you receive Holy Communion in the state of grace, the Holy Spirit fills you and the voice of the Father resounds in your heart as He looks upon His Son truly present within you and says to you, “You are My son, on you My favor rests.”
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.