For an audio version of Homily, below:
On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem there’s a high tower built in the last century by the Russian government for Christian pilgrims from that country and other eastern Christian churches as a observation point where they could see some of the key places associated with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
They could look over to Jerusalem and see the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where he was crucified and rose from the dead. Jus down below was the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed and was arrested. In the distance to the southeast they could see Bethlehem where he was born. On the eastern side of the Mount of Olives they could see the village of Bethany where Jesus stayed when he came to Jerusalem and where he raised Lazarus from the dead. Further east they could look down about 20 miles to the Jordan Valley where he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.
The tower was built, first of all, for pilgrims who couldn’t always get to all of these places because of their age, or the pressure of time or, more likely, because it was unsafe to travel to one of these destinations. That was especially true for that 20 mile trip to the Jordan River. Today you can go there in an air conditioned bus or car in an hour or so, but then the journey was far more difficult.
But for pilgrims then and now, you can’t omit the journey to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. The Baptism of Jesus is a mystery that includes all the other mysteries of Jesus we celebrate as Christians. That’s why we celebrate it today as we conclude the mysteries of the Christmas season. In our baptism we are brought to share in his baptism. We share in his life and the promise it brings to the world.
In the Jordan River, Jesus is proclaimed by God the Father, “a voice from heaven,” as “my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1,11) We believe that when we are baptized we share in his life, we become children of God, with us he is pleased. That gift is given to us and never refused.
All the gospels tell us that John the Baptist was the one who baptized Jesus, and he seems to shrink from that role, to question whether he should be there at all. Of course, we may wonder too about the gift we have received.
“The Baptist protests; Jesus insists,” Saint Gregory Nazienzen says in a sermon on the Baptism of Jesus. “John says: I ought to be baptised by you. He is the lamp in the presence of the sun, the voice in the presence of the Word, the friend in the presence of the Bridegroom, the greatest of all born of woman in the presence of the firstborn of all creation, the one who leapt in his mother’s womb in the presence of him who was adored in the womb, the one who come before in the presence of him who has already come and is to come again.”
The sacrament of baptism reminds us that the mysteries of Jesus and the promise they bring are ours too. That seems so far from our understanding.
As we enter church and go from the church, we touch the water with our hands we remind ourselves of the great gift we have in Jesus Christ. The Son of God has come to dwell with us and we receive his blessing, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.