What a festive season we’ve had! Heavy and persistent rain, blustery winds and floods, now topped off by snow and ice. It was supposed to be a relaxing time of rest and joy; instead many people have battled for survival against the unbridled power of the elements. Sometimes their fight was unfortunately given over to damage limitation. Excuse the pun, but this cloud had a silver lining: it was really uplifting to see people helping each other, and the emergency services doing their best for them. Last Friday morning I heard on the radio a hotel owner telling the story of a man who decided to move out of his room to make way to accommodate a pregnant flood victim – a truly Christmassy story.
However devastating the effects of the recent floods may be – and by no means do I want to diminish them – there’s been a much greater and more permanent deluge throughout the last year: wave upon wave of people fleeing their homes and homelands ravaged by war, violence, corruption, injustice or persecution, and heading to Europe in search of a better life. It is estimated that just this last year over a million refugees arrived in Germany. And there are still more making the desperate journey despite the winter. Compassion for our fellow human beings has been the driving force behind the attempts of nations to accommodate these people. Sadly, the abuse and the downright criminal activities that happened on New Year’s Eve across Germany and Austria have raised a huge question mark over such an open-door, uncritical attitude.
Today we are celebrating the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, when Jesus is being baptised in the Jordan. As we heard in the second reading from the Acts of the Apostles, which is the New Testament’s book telling about the beginnings of the Church, Jesus’ public ministry begins then and there; anything that happened before that is practically absent from the Apostles’ preaching. In the liturgical year this feast ends the festive, quiet period of Christmas and marks the return to the everyday hustle and bustle.
The rite of baptism is commonly regarded as the rite of spiritual purification and reception into the Christian community. It’s true for everyone but Jesus; as the Son of God, sinless and holy, he doesn’t need purification. So what’s the point of him being baptised? The answer lies in the meaning of the word ‘baptism’. It’s derived from the Greek verb meaning ‘to immerse’, which is pretty self-explanatory. Unlike other people baptised by John the Baptist, Jesus doesn’t confess any sins. By sharing the same rite, Jesus immerses himself in human nature, in our reality, in our world. His baptism reveals what happened when he took flesh in Mary’s womb. The whole story of his conception and hidden life is encapsulated in his baptism.
From that point on, he sets out on a journey of compassion that will lead him to the ultimate sacrifice on the cross. His mission was described beautifully in the first reading. It’s too long to recall in full now, but the overall message there is about the restoration of order and justice in place of chaos and lawlessness: and it’s about restoring them in a gentle, peaceful and supportive way. The principal way of achieving such a restoration (in one’s own life) is by making a covenant, a pact with God who will set free those who accept it. So today Jesus renews his commitment to your life; he reminds you that he is, and that he wants to be present and active in your life whatever the circumstances. Your joys and your sorrows are his too. And the words addressed to him from on high apply to you too: you are my beloved; my favour rests on you.’