Water, new life and a call to serve
January 11, 2009 -- The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
By Sr. Ann Rehrauer
Today's Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is the closing of the Christmas season and the beginning of Ordinary Time. Jesus' baptism symbolized his response to the Father's call to inaugurate the Kingdom. Today the church in the United States also begins the celebration of National Vocation Awareness Week, which commemorates our baptismal response to God's call. While Jesus' vocation was unique, like Jesus, all of us are called to build the Kingdom in our time and place, as priests, religious, married couples, or single men and women.
In the Gospel for the second Sunday of Advent, John came proclaiming a baptism of repentance, preparing the way for one mightier than himself. As the Christmas season ends, the promise is fulfilled as Jesus receives baptism from his cousin, John, and embarks upon his public ministry.
Just as the theme of John's baptism of repentance moves throughout the Advent season, there are also echoes in today's liturgy that connect us with the Easter season. The Advent prayer of Isaiah 63:19 asks that God would rend the heavens and come down. At Jesus' baptism, the heavens are torn open, and God's voice is heard. At the crucifixion, the veil of the sanctuary will be torn from top to bottom (Mk 15:38). The first reading from Isaiah 55 invites us to "come to the water" and freely receive what we most desire. This call is accompanied by the directive to "listen" to the Beloved Son of God, upon whom God's Spirit rests. This invitation to approach the water and to listen to Christ, will again be heard at the Easter Vigil.
The Scriptures and the prayers of the Mass contain images of water and the Spirit, the preaching of John the Baptist, Jesus emerging from the waters of the Jordan, and the call to be children of God. Our hymns and psalmody also focus on water, new life, and our call to serve.
Special decorations surround the baptismal font - extra greenery or flowers, perhaps a dove, symbolizing the Spirit, running water, or a sea shell. There will also be baptismal overtones and rituals within the Mass itself. Today is an appropriate time for the baptism of infants. Even if there are no baptisms this week, there will at least be the blessing of water and the sprinkling rite. As we hear the account of Jesus' baptism, we recall our own rebirth in the waters of baptism and in renewing our baptismal promises we recommit ourselves to the work of prayer and ministry.
Every Sunday we recite the Nicene Creed and profess our belief in, and relationship with God who is Father, Son, and Spirit, and with the church. This profession of faith is not simply an intellectual acknowledgement of a set of truths, but a witness to the powerful change that occurred in us when we were claimed for Christ. In reciting the Creed or by renewing our baptismal promises, we praise and thank God who chose us and made us beloved sons and daughters.
At the last liturgy of the day, many parishes invite members to take home the remaining poinsettias. While the flowers may remain fresh for a while, they are so connected with the Christmas season that they are best removed from the worship space as we move into Ordinary Time.
(Sr. Rehrauer is president of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross, Bay Settlement, and former associate director of the Liturgy Secretariat for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)