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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Baptism of the Lord

Home-made religion

John the Baptist was a very fierce man. This might be what you would expect of a man who lived most of his life in the desert. He knew all about hardship and he had the marks of penance on his body. Much of his message was taken up in condemnation, condemnation of those living a life of luxury and giving no thought to the life of the Spirit.
But if John was so fierce why did so many people come to him, people from all over Palestine? If I preached fierce condemnatory sermons each week you would soon get fed up, so why did the people flock to hear John.
They came because he had a message of hope and truth. Yes, he was fierce, but he was also truthful. He tapped into something deep inside each person. He knew that each one of us is profoundly aware of their own guilt and wants to repent and he drew this out.
But he was also able to tell them that one of their deepest yearnings was also about to be filled, a Saviour was about to come. One who would reach out to them with the hand of healing and Salvation. They came to John because he had a message of hope and Truth, and the hope he pointed to Jesus Who is the Truth.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus asked John to baptism him "to fulfill all righteousness." The words "to fulfill all righteousness" meant to live by God's will, to do all God commands.
The baptism of Christ reminds us about our own baptism. At his baptism, God identified Jesus as his "beloved son." At our baptism, we become sons and daughters of God, identified as "Christian." We have no more noble title. Jesus became the suffering servant. We are called to serve. We have no more noble task than to do God's will, to serve others, to do all God commands.
And what indeed we do with our baptism, with our faith, with our moral obligations? 
Famous German theologian Karl Rahner in his book “Foundations of the faith” writes:
“True religion, as a religion of the transcendental God and not the religion of my own subjective imagination cannot be rooted only in my subjectivity or depend only on my individual projection. It has to be a religion of objective and indisputable moral and ethical values rooted ultimately in God, Who is always out of me and finally out of my understanding. If the religion is only an expression and interpretation of my personal understanding and my private acceptation, it is always subjective and week, and finally it is a kind of home made religion. And what is the value of such a homemade religion? The value of such a homemade religion is the same as the value the home made currency. Means null, literally zero!!”
And this is what we precisely do nowadays with our baptism. We create a kind of homemade religion, which is absolutely subjective and depending only on my private acceptation and rejection depending on my private and subjective caprices.
Very often contemporary Christians see the religion rather as merchandise in the supermarket. Many people declare their adherence to the Catholic Church, but they “privatize” faith making it “more human, soft and flexible.” They accept God as long as He is obedient to them, accommodating, submissive and yielding to their desires.
They say I believe in God, I believe that God exists but I don’t believe God, I don’t trust Him, I don’t accept all or at least some commencements. Their decisions are not an effect of the commandments of God and the teaching of the Church but their personal convictions, they agree that robbery is a sin, but they reject for example the moral teaching in the domain of sexuality.
Sociologist Chuck Colson, who has examined this trend, says that "instead of adhering to a specific set of doctrines, they feel free to pick and choose from all the various belief systems, or to create their own tailor-made religion." 
This is dangerous ground. The true believer knows that Jesus Christ is the only way to God (Acts 4:12), and that the Bible, God's inspired Word, is the only true source of instruction (2 Timothy 3:15-16). The true believer knows also that sin is a terrible reality and not only the invention of some ultra superstitious priests. They know that: “Whoever says, ‘I know God’, but does not obey His commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist” (1 John 2:4)
All beliefs and practices relating to spirituality must be based on biblical truth—not on how appealing they may sound. Don't trust a homemade religion that contains a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Make your faith all about Jesus, and test everything by God's Word which was given to the Church “knowing this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation.” (2 Peter 1:20).
So, what did I do with my Baptism? Do I live by God's will, do I follow all God commandments or rather my personal, tailor-made caricature of faith?
Baptism of Christ Sunday reflections
We come today to the end of the Christmas season. And we have the third great ‘epiphany’ or showing of God in the human person of Jesus. The first ‘epiphany’ was at the birth of the child Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem when he was visited by the shepherds representing the poor, the marginalized and the sinful for whom Jesus had specially come. The second ‘epiphany’ was when the ‘wise men’ came from ‘the East’ to worship the newly born Jesus. They represented all those peoples and nations who were being invited to be numbered among God’s own people through the mediation of Jesus as Lord.
Today we celebrate the third great ‘epiphany’ of the Lord in Jesus Christ. The time is much later. Jesus is now an adult, probably about 30 years of age. We are brought to the banks of the River Jordan somewhere north of Jerusalem where John the Baptist, a cousin of Jesus, is living out in the desert. The desert in some ways is a place where God can be found, although for Jesus it was also a place of trial and temptation. 
John leads a very austere life, dressed in the simplest of clothes and sustaining himself on whatever nourishment he can find in the vicinity. He has made a name for himself as a man of God and large numbers come out to hear and be influenced by him.
The opening words of today’s Gospel tell us that he was proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. It is important not to misunderstand the meaning of these words. It would be quite wrong to think that people simply had to come for baptism in the river for all their sins to be wiped out. That would be little more than superstition. The baptism itself was a symbolic act which had to be accompanied by an inner change. The word for ‘repentance’ here is metanoia (metanoia) in Greek. It implies a radical change in the way we look at the meaning and purpose of life and how we live that life ourselves. It calls for much more than is normally connoted by ‘repentance’ which we normally understand as ‘being sorry’ for something we have done. Metanoiais much more than just feeling sorry. It calls for a total reorganization of one’s attitudes so that such errant or hurting behaviour would simply disappear from one’s life.
And the ‘forgiveness of sins’ is more than just God just wiping out the guilt and the threat of punishment that our sins might involve. In a sense, our sins can never be wiped out. The damage they do often lasts for a very long time and cannot be undone. If I have murdered someone, they stay dead no matter how sorry I feel. If I have destroyed a person’s reputation, it may remain destroyed for ever. Hurtful words spoken cannot be called back.
Baptism of Christ Sunday Reflection
Baptism means for us what it meant for Jesus that day he stepped into the River Jordan and was washed by John. He was beginning his public life, his mission. His baptism was his initiation, his entrance into that mission. He emerged from the water appointed by the Father to do his work. In the waters of baptism we have been initiated, called and appointed. We have been initiated into a worldwide people, called to discipleship and commissioned to ministry. Jesus was already the Son of God although He was officially promoted to be the God’s Son and He didn’t need to be freed from sin. But in our baptism there is something more, we are liberated from the original sin and made the children of God and this is our true promotion, our appointment.
“This is my Beloved Son, listen to him.” The importance of this epiphany lies in the words of the Father. Jesus and Jesus alone is our teacher. In a world full of gurus, dynamic preachers, and people of every opinion imaginable each with thousands and thousands of followers; we need to look to only one place, to only one person for guidance. We only need to look to Jesus Christ. Our way to God the Father is through the person of Jesus Christ. We take these steps by responding to his call for us to take up our crosses and follow him. Any theory or practice that diminishes the need for Jesus in our lives or relegates his presence to a secondary role cannot be our way to the Father. We are not told to listen to this guru, or that dynamic preacher, or to read this or that famous writer, we are told to listen only to the Beloved Son. 
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a very good opportunity to remember our own Baptism. The most important part of the baptismal rite is the faith commitment that we bring to it. Our sponsors may have made this promise for us many years ago but we must now claim that commitment in our own names. And that means nothing less than a deeply personal decision to follow Christ by living in a truly unselfish manner. It also means to renounce the alluring but false suggestion of Satan that self-indulgence leads to happiness.
Let us see a little bit closer some theological aspects and life implications of the Sacrament of Baptism. We know that the Baptism as all 7 Sacraments is the visible sign of the invisible grace.
What are the visible signs in the rite of Baptism? One is certainly the water - the same sign which was used by Saint John when baptizing Jesus in the waters of Jordan. The second one are the words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. These words are known as the sacramental formula which was given to the disciples by Christ Himself before His Ascension. St. Matthew’s Gospel is ending with the following words:
“Then Jesus approached and said to them, "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."
So these two visible signs are the external symbols of the internal graces we receive in the Sacrament of Baptism. Those graces are at least four:
childhood or divinization - by the Baptism God adopted us as His beloved children in whom He is well pleased. He instituted a new relationship between me and Him, He became my Father, and I am –since then- His child. Do I realize what my dignity as the child of God is?
forgiveness of all sins and reception of the sanctifying grace of God. By Baptism God forgives all my sins and creates the conditions of an intimate Communion with Him. Only because of His Sanctifying Grace we are able to approach Him and to call Him “Our Father”.
through Baptism we are buried with Christ for sins and we are born anew  to a new life of freedom, as the coheirs of the Everlasting Life, as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.
and finally we became the members of the People of God, the Church.
We will never be able to understand full the first three graces we receive through the Sacrament of Baptism. We will be able to see the fullness of these graces in Heaven once facing God as He is. But already here we have to be aware of the dignity we received, the dignity of the children of God, brother and sisters of His Son Jesus Christ, invited to participate in the Community of God.
But this dignity is also a source of our moral obligations. As Jesus commanded His disciples: “to baptize all nations teaching them to observe all that He have commanded  …”. And what does it mean? The answer we can find in today’s second reading, where St. John says:
“In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God consists in this, that we keep his commandments.”
During the rite of Baptism our parents and godparents where asked some questions and they answer on our behalf. Let us remind us these questions: 
Parents and Godparents, if your faith makes you ready to accept this responsibility, renew now the vows of your own baptism.  Reject sin; profess your faith in Christ Jesus.  This is the faith of the Church.  This is the faith in which the child is about to be baptized.
Priest:   Do you reject Satan?
P and G: I do
Priest:  And all his works?
P and G: I do
Priest: And all his empty promises?
P and G: I do
The second part of the dialog is what we know as the Creed. We repeat it every time we participate in the Sunday Eucharist. It will be maybe necessary to reflect upon this text, so to realize fully what I believe as a baptized child of God.
But we have to see clearly that from the fact of being baptized originate not only the graces and supernatural gifts but also some rights and obligations. 
As a member of the Church, the community of saints founded by Jesus Christ I have some rights … like for example the right to other sacraments, the sacrament of the Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist included or also for example the right for Christian burial.
But I have not to forget that as the child of God and the member of the Church I have also some obligations.
It will be absolutely incomprehensible to enjoy the rights without following the obligations. This is the meaning of the words of Saint John in today’s second reading: “the love of God consists in this, that we keep his commandments.”
Do we not know what the commandments are? We know the 10 commandments from the Old Testament, we know the 2 commandments from the New Testament, we know the 6 church commandments … we know our moral obligations, we know that our first and the most important obligation (at the same time our most priceless right) is the participation in the Holy Eucharist.
And what??? What is our answer? We are quite good in claiming our rights but at the same time we are rather forgetful or even neglectful in fulfilling our obligations.
I read somewhere a frightening diagnosis of the contemporary Christianity:
An atheist said:
"If Christians are the light of the world, somebody has forgotten to turn the switch on.
Since 1960, there has been a 560% increase in violent crimes, more than a 400% increase in illegitimate births, a quadrupling of divorce rates, tripling of children in single-parent homes. And what about the abortion and euthanasia, what about the other moral issues? The world does seem to be going to hell in a hand-basket.”
Very harsh characteristic of our Christian conditions, but is it far away from the truth?
I was baptized and what are the results of this fact in my life? The commandment of Christ: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” is constantly valid and legitimate, but also challenging … me too.
Sunday Reflection - Baptism of Christ Sunday 
1. Baptism is a true Sacrament initiated by Christ. The Church Fathers cite Scripture verses such as Mt 28:19 and Jn 3:5 to show that Baptism as a Sacrament comes from Jesus himself. Strictly speaking, John's baptism is not a sacrament but a ritual that involves repentance and a symbolic cleansing bath. Jesus would take John's basic ritual and transform it into a true Sacrament.
2. Baptism can be done by immersion or infusion, that is, pouring water over the head. Complete immersion has a richer symbolism, but infusion is equally valid.
3. In the form of Baptism it is essential that there be a distinct expression of God as One and Three. For validity, the person must be baptized "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." 
4. Anyone using the required matter (water) and form (formula) - and having the intention of baptizing - can validly confer the Sacrament. He does so licitly, however, only in the case of necessity. The normal minister of baptism is the deacon, priest or bishop.
5. Baptism is necessary for all in respect to salvation, whether they be infants or adults. The early writers, like us, had theories about those who - through no fault of their own - did not receive baptism. Still, they were firm in maintaining the necessity of baptism - that it is the only means given by Jesus to enter everlasting life. 
6. Even infants are capable of receiving Baptism. From earliest times Christian writers testify to practice of baptizing the children of believing parents.
7. The effect of Baptism is spiritual regeneration. The baptized person is reborn by receiving remission of every sin and the infusion of Sanctifying Grace.
Prayer of the faithful:
Almighty God, our Father, we know that your truth is revealed in your Son Jesus Christ, but very often we reject Him as your revelation, give us please the grace of the ultimate recognition of the Truth revealed in Christ and given to us trough the Church.
May the incarnation and Baptism of your Son Jesus Christ be for us always a source and example of our personal obedience to your commandments and may it reminds us of our dignity of the children of God. We ask this trough Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen

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