The Baptism of Jesus – 12 January 2014 – A Sacrament of Identity and Opportunity
I just returned from a meeting of colleagues working in the field of liturgy. Each year we begin the conference with a ritual to remember the lives of those who died during the past year. It is not unusual to learn something new about the identity of those persons. And, I always find myself thinking, “I did not know that about her” and “I wish I knew her better before she died.” How often have we thought the same way about a deceased friend or member of our families … after their deaths?
Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus of Nazareth which is considered by some scholars a turning point in his own identity. It is thought that the event was necessary to proclaim, in public, the mission of Jesus, his purpose in life. Otherwise, he may have been lesser known or considered just another prophet or superhero. Even his own neighbors questioned his identity as anything but a hometown youth.
This feast is an opportunity to evaluate our own identity as human beings and as members of this particular Christian church. What are we known for? How will people remember us? Are we recognized always in relationship to someone else — as a spouse or partner, an employer? Are we stereotyped in some way because of race, sex, education, wealth, a title we hold? Or, are we known because of just the way we are with our unique characteristics, gifts and shortcomings.
Scholar John Pilch suggests that the gospel addresses what may have happened to Jesus as he was maturing and searching for his own identity. He was curious about John the Baptist’s radical call to transformation and sought him out.  Maybe Jesus was tired of being a carpenter’s son. It may have been a turning point in the life of Jesus, similar, perhaps, to our own life-changing experiences.
Isn’t it true that we often go along doing whatever it is that we do when all of a sudden, it seems, something happens to us that prompts a change in our attitudes or perhaps even our entire life. It could be the birth of a baby or the death of partner. It could be surviving cancer or a terrible crash. Perhaps it is the loss of a job or being hired again or retiring. Getting divorced or finding a new mate can change us.These occasions prompt us to refresh our old identities or to find completely new ones.
The gospel also suggests that the ministry of Jesus was pleasing to God. Now, how anyone would know this is hard to understand. Still for Christians it complements the prophecy we heard in the first reading. We are not sure who the servant was in this passage. Was it Isaiah or the nation Israel? Was it someone who was yet to come? All of the references to liberation, however, make this an obvious Christian preface to today’s gospel that identifies Jesus as the One  who was to restore creation, to bless us with peace (Ps 29).
Baptism, like other sacraments, can create a new identity for us as well. Baptism in living water immerses us in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a door to the sacred, an opportunity to take on a new identity by taking off an older one. Baptism initiates us into this new life; the eucharist sustains us in it.
We believe the call to a new identity in baptism comes from God. Others may have alerted us to that call. Jesus responded and took some risks in doing so. We try to answer that divine call in whatever ways we can, ways that are simple, holy and just. We work to create possibilities so that all people can live with dignity, mobility and opportunity. We oppose any thing that deprives others of the chance to get ahead in life. In the second reading from the Acts of the Apostles, attributed to Luke, we are reminded “God shows no partiality.”
We gather often to remember and embrace the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In doing so we also face the question, “how will you and I be remembered?”
1 John J. Pilch The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (The Liturgical Press. 1995. pp. 10-12)
2 Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (Liturgical Press. 2006, pp. 34-36.