Baptism of the Lord (C)
Baptisms and Border-Crossings
Baptisms and Border-Crossings
Readings: Is 40:1-5, 9-11; Ps 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10; Ti 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Lk 3:15-16, 21-22
Picture: cc Abeeeer
Dear sisters and brothers, some years ago, I joined a team of volunteers accompanying a group of catechumens on a weekend retreat in preparation for baptism. As the venue for the retreat was quite far away, the plan was for everyone to meet at the church very early one Saturday morning, hop onto a couple of tour buses, which would take us to a ferry terminal, where a ferry would then transport us to our destination. The journey went smoothly enough for me, until I got to the terminal. You see, although I had tried to remember everything necessary for the weekend, I’d missed one crucially important detail. I’d forgotten that more than just being rather far away, the retreat location was actually in a whole different country. I’d forgotten that the ferry terminal was also an immigration checkpoint, the crossing of which required a passport. Without this official document, the checkpoint became for me a terminal in the literal sense of the word, a dead end. Much to my embarrassment – What?! You mean Father forgot his passport?! – I had no choice but to go back home, retrieve my travel document, and then return to catch a later ferry.
The inconvenience caused by my own absentmindedness brought home to me two things that I don’t often think about. The first is, of course, the importance of the passport. Not only does it allow you to cross into a foreign country, but it also enables you to return home. With a passport, borders become checkpoints instead of dead ends. With a passport, you can safely negotiate border crossings in both directions. And you can do this because the passport tells people who you are, where you come from, what your nationality is, under whose protection you belong. But this crucial importance of the passport also points to a something else. It highlights the fact that border-crossings can be highly stressful and even dangerous undertakings. And this is, of course, becoming increasingly true in our post September 11th world. Today – especially after the exploits of the would-be Detroit bomber – even a passport-carrying traveler has to face a whole host of challenges, including ever-stricter packing guidelines and ever-more stringent security checks, not to mention the possibility that a fellow traveler might actually be a closet terrorist. All of which is enough to make us give up the idea of traveling altogether. Faced with so much stress, it’s probably understandable if we decide to forgo vacations and opt for stay-cations instead.
Which is why our celebration of the Baptism of the Lord on this last day of the Christmas season is so timely for us who are baptized Christians. For what is baptism if not a border-crossing? In today’s gospel, for example, we find people filled with expectation, and gathered by the banks of the river Jordan, where John has been baptizing. Why are the people expectant, if not because they think that John can help them to cross the border separating the kingdom of this world from the Kingdom of God? Why are they gathering at the Jordan, if not in the hope that its banks might turn into a checkpoint for them, a border-crossing into eternity? But John has no such pretensions. He makes it quite clear that although he can gather the people at the checkpoint, he cannot bring them across to the other side. To do that, they need someone else. And isn’t this what sets Jesus apart from John? Although the Baptist is able to show people the way to the border by teaching them to smooth out the highways of their hearts, only Jesus has the passport that is required to bring them across. It is for Jesus alone that the heavens open. Of course, the gospel gives us no indication that Jesus is carrying an official travel document. What we do find, however, is the descent of the Holy Spirit and the sound of the Father’s Voice declaring Jesus’ true identity. You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.
Out of all the people gathered at the borderlands of the Jordan, Jesus stands out because he alone has a passport. He alone is the Father’s only begotten Son. But that’s not all. Jesus stands out not only because of who he is, but also because of where he is going. Jesus stands out because of the particular direction in which he is traveling. Unlike all the others, who are hoping to cross from the kingdom of this world into the Kingdom of God, Jesus brings the Kingdom of God into this world. He is the One whom the Father sends to comfort, give comfort to my people. Isn’t this the mystery that we have been celebrating throughout this Christmas season? And, by becoming one like us, Jesus effectively transforms himself into our passport. Baptized in his blood, we become the adopted sons and daughters of the Father, able to pass safely into the Kingdom of God. Isn’t this the great gift that has been given us at our baptism? In the words of the second reading, when the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit… so that we might… become heirs in hope of eternal life. And isn’t this also the deeper reason why Jesus submits to John’s baptism even though Jesus is without sin? How else might those waiting at the borderlands of the Jordan finally be able to cross over into the fullness of life, if the One who alone is the Way and the Truth and the Life (John 14:6) does not come among them to lead them? How else would the ordinary waters of baptism be infused with the extraordinary power of the Spirit, transforming sinful enemies of God into beloved children of a compassionate Father? How else but by the immersion into these same waters of the sinless Body of the only begotten Son of God?
And yet, sisters and brothers, as marvelous as all this is, it is not quite the whole story. For checkpoints are meant to facilitate travel in two directions. And passports are meant to enable people to move freely both in and out. Similarly, to be a baptized Christian is more than just to enjoy the privileges of holding a passport into the Kingdom of God. It is also to share in the mission of Christ, who was sent by the Father into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17). A baptized Christian is called to travel in the footsteps of Christ, to cross borders in both directions, to share one’s precious passport with others, to comfort them with the same consolation that we have received, so that they too might enjoy the fullness of life. Indeed, this is a great challenge for us, especially today, when borders are becoming increasingly dangerous locations, not just borders between countries, but also those between races and religions, between ideologies and identities. Just this past week, haven’t we heard reports of a soccer team being machine-gunned on the border between the Republic of Congo and Angola, of Christians being attacked in Egypt, of churches being firebombed in Malaysia, and of people of Indian descent being targeted in Australia? News like this may tempt us to cling desperately to the safe and the familiar, to stay home and to steer clear of border-crossings. But to do so would be to fail to live up to our dignity as baptized followers of Christ, who chose us and appointed us to go out and to bear fruit, fruit that will remain (John 15:16).
Sisters and brothers, on this last day of the season in which we celebrate God’s coming among us as a human person, perhaps it is only right that we ask ourselves how the Lord might be inviting us to undertake border-crossings today. And whatever may be your response, please try not to do what I did.
Don’t forget your passport.