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Reflection for the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, 8th January 2023

Abide in me, and I in you (John 15:4)

On Sunday we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. During the days of Advent and Christmas, we have celebrated God’s plan to save his people from sin, focused on the Incarnation, the Epiphany and now the spotlight moves to the baptism of Jesus. These feasts have revealed the plan of God who sent his Son, the Word made flesh, to be our Saviour and the generous faith-filled response of Our Lady to the angel Gabriel. St. John tells us, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). This is the promise in which we share through our baptism.

Of course, Jesus did not need to be baptised. He reveals to us the meaning of baptism and gives us the gift through which we become members of the Church, the Body of Christ. In the words of the Preface of the Baptism of the Lord, ‘For in the waters of the Jordan you revealed with signs and wonders a new baptism, so that through the voice that came down from heaven we might come to believe in your Word dwelling among us, and by the Spirit’s descending in the likeness of a dove we might know that Christ your Servant has been anointed with the oil of gladness and sent to bring the good news to the poor.’ By the sacrament of baptism, we now share in this new life of the Baptised and are born anew in water and the Holy Spirit. We are called to abide in Christ as he abides in us. Anointed by the Holy Spirit, we share in the royal priesthood of the baptised. We are each sent to bring the good news to the poor.

A reading often used at a baptism speaks of our new dignity as the baptised, ‘See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are… Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3: 1-3). We are the Beloved of the Lord. These words convey our new dignity as Christians. They give us great hope as we see our future as children of God. We are called again and again to accept God’s grace, turn from sin, and follow Jesus the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We are given the promise of eternal life with God when our joy will be complete and we will see God’s glory face to face.

At Jesus’ baptism, the voice of the Father from heaven announced, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.’ God’s favour rests on us. We are invited to abide in the love of the Father. We are called to seek the face of Christ to know him, love him, and follow him. We meet Christ in his Word, in his Sacrament, and through our neighbour, especially when we meet the poor person. Our faith is relational and interpersonal. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, ‘We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’ (Deus Caritas Est 1). This encounter with Christ, in whom we abide, is nurtured in prayer, by worship, and through love.  It is not something theoretical or abstract.

At baptism, we become members of the Church, the community of disciples, bound together in communion. Often in parish life the rite of baptism is celebrated only with the family and friends of the one to be baptised. When the celebration lacks a deeper bond to the whole community, the wider understanding of baptism can be obscured. Various attempts to emphasise this communion have been tried: the preparatory rites of welcome or the anointing with the oil of catechumens may be celebrated on a Sunday morning in the community or sometimes the baptism is held within the Mass. It can be difficult for the priest to hold all this together especially when family members are distant from Catholic faith. It can cause a lot of tensions that nobody wants. We are called to reflect further on how we emphasise the communal dimension of baptism and our common membership of the Body of Christ. We also share in an imperfect communion through baptism with Christians who are not in communion with the Catholic Church. This division urges us on to work for Christian unity.

To be baptised is to be sent on mission. We are called to hand on the hope which is in our hearts to others and to witness to them as disciples of Jesus. By our new life in Christ and our faith expressed in loving action, they will catch the faith we wish to share with them. There will often be a cost to this discipleship, which calls for a readiness to sacrifice oneself, and live according to Catholic teaching whatever the cost. Catholics often find themselves with few allies when they proclaim the teaching that the good of every human life, from conception to natural death, is to be protected and nurtured. We need allies to better protect the life of the disabled in the womb and oppose those who advocate assisted suicide.

We have our part to play in this debate. In his often-quoted address in Westminster Hall (2010), Pope Benedict XVI reminded the gathered representatives of British society that the religious voice must speak into the national dialogue about what is good and leads to human flourishing. He asked, ‘where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?’ In his response to this question, he outlined the relationship between reason and faith, each with its part to play in the articulation of the objective norms which lead to human flourishing.  They complement one another. In summary, ‘the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles…’. Reason and faith need each other to engage in a profound and ongoing dialogue for the good of our civilisation. (Address, 17 September 2010).

Twelve years later, on 16 September 2022, King Charles III expressed his openness to the necessity of such debate for the good of society. In an address delivered to religious leaders following the death of the late Queen, the King said, ‘It is the duty [of the Sovereign] to protect the diversity of our country, including by protecting the space for Faith itself and its practise through the religions, cultures, traditions and beliefs to which our hearts and minds direct us as individuals. This diversity is not just enshrined in the laws of our country, it is enjoined by my own faith. As a member of the Church of England, my Christian beliefs have love at their very heart. By my most profound convictions, therefore – as well as by my position as Sovereign – I hold myself bound to respect those who follow other spiritual paths, as well as those who seek to live their lives in accordance with secular ideals.’ (Buckingham Palace, 16 September 2022). Love is to be placed at the centre of our all actions for the good of society.

In the uncertainty and anxiety of the beginning of this new year, as we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we are invited to renew the commitment of our baptism to love God and our neighbour; to hope in the promise of eternal life, and to work diligently to protect the dignity of every human life, from conception to natural death. We contribute our faith perspective and enrich the arguments from reason which recognise the dignity of every human person. When Our Blessed Lady said ‘fiat – your will be done’ to the angel Gabriel, the Word became flesh in her womb. Our faith in the incarnation illuminates and enriches the understanding of the dignity of each human life in the womb. Jesus’ surrender on the cross to the Father’s Will teaches us about the meaning of dying and death. In an act of final surrender, he breathed his final breath and prayed, ‘Into your hands O Lord I commend my Spirit.’

May the Holy Spirit inspire us by his gifts of wisdom, counsel and courage to abide in him who has loved us and to live our baptismal calling with deep faith and commitment.

Bishop John Sherrington

Photo: Detail from the dome mosaic in the Neonian Baptistery, Ravenna (Bishop John Sherrington)