For this week’s homily please play the video file below:
For this week’s homily please play the video file below:
On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem a high tower was built in the last century by the Russian government to allow Christian pilgrims an observation point to see the key places associated with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Looking westward is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where he was crucified and rose from the dead. Just down below is the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed and was arrested. In the distance to the southeast is Bethlehem where he was born. On the eastern side of the Mount of Olives is the village of Bethany where Jesus stayed when he came to Jerusalem and where he raised Lazarus from the dead. Further east, about 20 miles down the Jordan Valley is where he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.
The tower was built, I understand, for pilgrims who couldn’t always get to all of these places because of age, or the pressure of time or perhaps because it was unsafe to travel to one of these destinations. That was especially true for the 20 mile trip to the Jordan River.
The tower attests the importance of the journey to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. The Baptism of Jesus is a mystery that includes all the 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 and in his life.
In the Jordan River, God the Father, “a voice from heaven,” proclaimed him “my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1,11) We believe that when we are baptized we become children of God with him, with us he is pleased.
We celebrate that gift today. As we go from church to church, we touch the Holy Water with our hands and bless ourselves, remembering the great gift we have in Jesus Christ. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
audio homily here:
John the Baptist may look and sound forbidding, but don’t let appearances put you off. He spoke in the wilderness, where looks are not important and you can’t keep up appearances. The wilderness symbolizes the hard places we all must pass through.
So we shouldn’t deny they exist. Or think a simple sentence will take them away. I suppose that’s why I prefer John the Baptist to Joel Osteen.
John’s father was Zachariah, a priest in the temple, a much more secure place to be. He told John: “You, my child shall be called the prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.” (Luke 1) God called John to the wilderness to show people the way to God from there.
The Judean wilderness where John the Baptist baptized lay about 15 miles east of Jerusalem in the Jordan Valley north of the Dead Sea. Pilgrims from the north took an ancient road along the River Jordan and followed it as it veered right near the town of Jericho to ascend steeply about 3,500 feet up to the Holy City, about an 9 hour walk. A tough road in itself to travel.
Near where the road begins to ascend, John baptized great crowds in the river’s refreshing waters. He baptized Jesus and his disciples in these waters and then pointed Jesus out as “the Lamb of God” and told his followers to follow him as their Shepherd and Way.
John was a voice pointing Jesus out in the wilderness. He still points him out in the wilderness today and tells us to follow him. “You’ll make it through the wilderness,” he says.
music on John the Baptist.
The temptation of Jesus in the desert, after his baptism in the Jordan River, shows his human side as much as any other gospel story. Yes, He is the Son of God, a voice from heaven proclaimed him God’s Son in the waters of the Jordan. He died and rose from the dead, he is “God from God, true God from true God,” but Jesus was also human.
We may tend to see him only as divine, unlike us: a miracle worker, an assured teacher, a master of circumstances, someone above it all, but we’re told in scripture that Jesus was “like us in all things except sin.” An earthly life was challenging for him as it is for us. Life was always challenging for him as it is for us.
Luke’s gospel, following Matthew’s gospel, shows us the humanity of Jesus in the temptations he faced in the desert, and these same temptations were there throughout his life. The Spirit led Jesus into the desert, a challenging place for human beings, where you can get tired and hunger, where you struggle for footing and wonder where you are. The desert is the place where human weakness shows.
Jesus faced three temptations in the desert, our gospel says. One temptation was to think you’re the master of creation. “Turn these stones into bread,” Satan says to him, the Son of God can do that. But if you are truly human–and we say the Jesus was truly human–you can’t turn stones into bread. You can’t control nature. That means that Jesus, like anyone human, got tired and hungry, could get sick and get old. He needed human support and friendship. Yes, for a short period Jesus worked some miracles, but much of his life, the long years he lived in Nazareth, he accepted the limitations of humanity. He did not escape from being human. He was like us.
The second temptation in the desert was a temptation to control people, to dominate them, to be in charge of them, to make them serve you. “The devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant and said to him, “I shall give to you all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
I’ll make people your servants, the devil said. Jesus said, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him alone shall you serve.” Instead of people serving him, Jesus lived for others and gave his life for others. “I did not come to be served, but to serve.”
The third temptation is a temptation to control God. That’s what the devil suggests when he takes Jesus up to the temple and tells him to throw himself down and God’s angels will save him. You can tell God what to do, said the devil. Use God’s power to become powerful yourself. Jesus told him: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
In the temptations of Jesus, symbolically recalled in our gospel today, we recognize the humanity of Jesus. He is like us. In his temptations, we can see our own temptations. Just look at how Jesus was tempted and the temptations we face. “Turn these stones into bread.” We would love to snap our fingers and change our lives when they’re not working out to our liking. We would love to be miracle-workers, untouched by sickness or death, having perfect lives, having it all.
“I’ll give you power over people so that they’ll do whatever you want,” the devil tells Jesus. They’ll please you, they’ll agree with you, they’ll like you. How tempting that suggestion is us too.
“I’ll see that God does what you want,” How sweeping that temptation is, but it’s a real danger we face too, that instead of we serving God, doing God’s will and working for God’s kingdom to come, we see God working for us and the kingdom we would like to come.
This gospel is a very symbolic gospel. It not only shows the humanity of Jesus, it shows the temptations all of us, human beings, meet in life. But the gospel wants us to see something more. Jesus did not come just to show us what it means to be human, he came to help us to be human. He did not give into temptation, the human temptations he faced. He delivers us from temptation. He lives in us and works with us and sustains us and helps us regain our strength again and again.
Just as the people of Israel were sustained on their way through the desert, Jesus sustains us.
“It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John.
On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” (Mark 1, 9-13)
We read Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus this year and we will read from his gospel all this year.
Mark’s account of the baptism and temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is the most succinct of the four gospels. Only five sentences. The theophany at the Jordan is quickly over. The heavens are open, and the Spirit, like a dove, descends on him. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” a voice from heaven says.
But then, the Spirit drives him out into the desert “at once.” He’s tempted for forty days, and the forty days point to a lifelong experience Jesus has. Wild beasts will always be in the world he lives in, and angels will always minister to him. Mark does not name his temptations either, they’re varied throughout his life. Ours are too.
The heavens open at baptism, all the gospels say. But more than the others, Mark’s gospel says that baptism calls us to participate in the Passion of Christ. His account and his gospel are important for understanding what baptism means for us.
In the week following the Epiphany, the daily gospel readings at Mass, from all four evangelists, are reflections on the mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord, who welcomed the Magi at his birth. Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, reveals himself to all the nations; he is Savior of all.
The mystery of the Epiphany, unfortunately, can suffer from the same saccharine interpretation as the mystery of Christmas. Our gospel readings this week remind us how hard and challenging the mission to the gentiles will be. When we follow Jesus we meet a world we do not know or understand.
Monday: Matthew, 4, 12-17, 23-25. Jesus never left the land of his birth during his lifetime, yet Matthew’s gospel suggests that his entrance into Galilee after John the Baptist’s arrest fulfilled the promise of salvation for gentiles as well as Jews. He enters “heathen Galilee,” Matthew says. “A land in darkness has seen a great light.”
In Jesus’ time Galilee was settled by a mixed population of Jews and gentiles and so it was indeed a land Jesus wanted to reach. Gentiles were among the “ great crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan that followed him.”
Tuesday, Mark 6,34-44; (cf. Mark 8, 1-10) Mark’s gospel records two miracles of the loaves, one on each side of the Sea of Galilee. In Mark’s gospel the Sea of Galilee symbolically divides the two peoples, Jews from Gentiles, and so Jesus by crossing that body of water brings his message to another people. Some commentators ask: Is the miracle of the loaves on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee a sign that the Bread of Life is also to be shared by the gentile world?
Wednesday: Mark 6, 45-52 The story of the storm at sea immediately follows the miracle of the bread. Is it a sign of the challenge disciples face as they follow Jesus into an unknown future? Human understanding fails before the wisdom and power of God, which can be like a storm at sea, leaving disciples afraid and doubtful. Even signs given by God can lose their meaning. “They were completely astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened.” (Mark 6, 52)
Thursday: Luke 4,14-22. Luke reports that Jesus returned to Nazareth in the course of ministry and in the synagogue they “were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But “his own” turn from amazement to rejection, Luke reports. Jesus must face the scandal of those close to him who do not believe.
Friday: Luke 5, 12-16. The leper who is cleansed is one of Luke’s classic examples of the power of God’s mercy. Not only does he experience healing for himself, but then proclaims God’s unfailing mercy in Jesus to others. “ The report about him spreads all the more and great crowds assembled to listen to him and be cured of their ailments.” Jesus will be known as we experience his mercy.
Saturday: John 3, 22-30 John the Baptist defers to Jesus before his disciples. “He must increase and I must decrease.” John’s humility is an example for all the disciples of Jesus. “I am not the Christ,” just a voice, John says of himself.
The reading prepares us for the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus which concludes the Christmas season. In the waters of baptism we share in all the mysteries of Jesus. They nourish us with eternal life.
The First Letter of John is also read each day this week, reminding us that Jesus came in the flesh and is truly human and truly divine. In his humanity he loved humanity; like him we must love each other as human beings, frail and weak as we are.
I’m leading a retreat for seminarians this week at Daylesford Abbey, outside Philadelphia. Pray for us. We will be reflecting on these readings and the prayers of the liturgy. We remember two important saints in the American church this week: St Elizabeth Seton and St. John Neumann. Wonderful examples of holiness. John Neumann, of course, is a good example for young men hoping to become priests.
1 Jn 5:5-13
The Christmas season closes with the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus on Sunday. The season’s already ended for most people, however. The decorations are away. Valentine’s Day is coming up.
But it takes time to celebrate mysteries of God; more than a day or an hour or two. It takes time for the mysteries of God to sink in. And so we prepare for the celebration through the days of Advent. Then on Christmas Day the poor shepherds come from the dark hills to see the Child announced by the angels. A Savior is born for us, a Child is given to us. Yet, as the ancient carol says, “We scarce can take it in.”
The Feast of the Epiphany is a further reminder that the Child is the savior of all nations. He came, not just for one people, but for all. The Magi represent people far away and they bring him their greetings and gifts. Then, they leave to bring back the good news of his birth. That colorful story isn’t over; it’s still unfolding.
The Feast of the Baptism of Jesus may seem like a poor way to end the Christmas season, so far removed from the days and events of Jesus’ birth as it is. But baptism is about birth too, a birth that conquers death.
Jesus Christ “came through water and Blood,” St. John says in his First Letter today. His Spirit is given to us. It’s not enough to just look upon the mystery of the Incarnation. We’re meant to share his life, and baptism is a sign of our union with him.
We need time to understand all this, however. So the Christmas season is a long season. And we’ll celebrate again next year.
The heavens open when Jesus goes into the waters of the Jordan to be baptized. The Spirit descends on him and the Father announces his pleasure in him: “Listen to him,” we’re told, and share in his life.
The baptism of Jesus, a feast we celebrate with the Feast of the Epiphany, affirms a new connection between earth and heaven. It speaks through the simple, fundament sign of water. Going into the Jordan, Jesus indicates that God blesses the waters of the earth– and consequently creation itself– with life. Our second reading today from Isaiah 55, 1-11 illustrates this mystery so well. First of all, Jesus quenches the thirst of our souls; he comes to quench the thirst of all:
“ All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, receive grain and eat;
come, without paying and without cost,
drink wine and milk!” Isaiah 55, 1
God’s gift of Jesus Christ not only satisfies our thirst as individuals, he comes to revive the institutions of our world.
“I will renew with you the everlasting covenant,
the benefits assured to David.
As I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander of nations,
so shall you summon a nation you knew not,
and nations that knew you not shall run to you,
because of the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you.” (Isaiah 55)
Jesus Christ also comes to purify the world and those who dwell in it:
“Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call him while he is near.
Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
and the wicked man his thoughts;
let him turn to the LORD for mercy;
to our God, who is generous in forgiving.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55
Finally, in his Son, God makes an everlasting covenant with our world:
“For just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
so shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.”
There’s an good article on the significance of water in the scriptures on the American Bible Society site.
The Jordan River, which figures in so many of the sacred stories of the Holy Land, is still vital to this region today. Though the river winds almost 200 miles from its sources at the base of the Golan mountains in the north into the Sea of Galilee and then on to the Dead Sea in the south, the direct distance from one end to the other is only about 60 miles. The river falls almost 3,000 feet on its way to the Dead Sea,.
The Jordan is sacred to Jews and Christians alike. It became holy to the Jews when they miraculously crossed it on their way to the Promised Land. The great Jewish prophet Elijah came from a town near the river’s banks. Later he returned to that part of the river to be safe from his enemies.
Elijah’s successor, the Prophet Elisha, also from Jordan area, told Naaman the Syrian general to bathe in the river to be cured of his leprosy, and he was cured. Ancient hot springs near Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee fostered the river’s curative reputation then. They’re still used today.
At the time of Jesus, the river’s fresh flowing waters were the life-blood of the land, making the Sea of Galilee teem with fish and the plains along its banks fertile for agriculture. Pilgrims from Galilee followed the Jordan on their way down to the city of Jericho, and from there went to Jerusalem to the temple to celebrate the holy days.
The Jordan Today
The river is still essential to the region. Lake Kineret, as the Israelis call the Sea of Galilee, is the primary source of drinking water for the region and crucial for its agriculture. The use of water from the Jordan is a major point of controversy between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
cf: “The Disputed Waters of the Jordan” by C. G. Smith Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers No. 40 (Dec., 1966), pp. 111-128 Oxford, England
The river nourished prophets in the past. Somewhere in the stretch of Jordan near Jericho where people forded the river, John the Baptist preached to and baptized pilgrims going to the Holy City.
The place where John baptized was hardly a desert as we think of it. It was a deserted place that offered sufficient food for survival, like the “ grass-hoppers and wild honey” John ate. In this uncultivated place, you learned to depend on what God provided.
That was the teaching of Jesus, remember. “I tell you do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or drink, or about your body, what you will wear… Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” (Mt 6, 25 ff) The desert was a place to put worry aside and trust in the goodness of God.
When he entered the waters of the Jordan to be baptized, Jesus acknowledged his heavenly Father as the ultimate Source of Life, the creator of all things. Water, as it always is, was a holy sign of life. Like the prophets, Elijah and John the Baptist, Jesus remained in this wilderness near the water for forty days to prepare for his divine mission. He readied himself to depend on God for everything.
The Jordan after Jesus
Later, when the Roman empire turned Christian in the 4th century, Christians came to the Jordan River in great numbers on Easter and on the Feast of the Epiphany to remember the One who was baptized there. They went into the sacred waters, and many took some of it home in small containers.
Early Christian pilgrims like Egeria, a nun from Gaul who came to the Holy Land around the year 415 AD left an account of her visit to the Jordan where she looked for the place of Jesus’ baptism. Monks who had already settled near the river brought her to a place called Salim, near Jericho. The town, associated with the priest Melchisedech, was surrounded by fertile land which had a revered spring that flowed into the Jordan close by. Here’s how she described it:
“We came to a very beautiful fruit orchard, in the center of which the priest showed us a spring of the very purest and best water, which gives rise to a real stream. In front of the spring there is a sort of pool where it seems that St. John the Baptist administered baptism. Then the saintly priest said to us: ‘To this day this garden is known as the garden of St. John.’ There are many other brothers, holy monks coming from various places, who come to wash in that spring.
“The saintly priest also told us that even today all those who are to be baptized in this village, that is in the church of Melchisedech, are always baptized in this very spring at Easter; they return very early by candlelight with the clergy and the monks, singing psalms and antiphons; and all who have been baptized are led back early from the spring to the church of Melchisedech.” p 73
A 19th Century Pilgrim at the Jordan
Christians in great numbers have visited the Jordan River since Egeria. Towards the end of the 19th century, an English vicar, Cunningham Geikie described Christian pilgrims following the venerable tradition of visiting its waters.
“Holy water is traditionally carried away by ship masters visiting the river as pilgrims to sprinkle their ships before a voyage; and we are told that all pilgrims alike went into the water wearing a linen garment, which they sacredly preserved as a winding sheet to be wrapped around them at their death.
“The scene of the yearly bathing of pilgrims now is near the ford, about two miles above the Dead Sea, each sect having its own particular spot, which it fondly believes to be exactly where our Savior was baptized…
“Each Easter Monday thousands of pilgrims start, in a great caravan, from Jerusalem, under the protection of the Turkish government; a white flag and loud music going before them, while Turkish soldiers, with the green standard of the prophet, close the long procession. On the Greek Easter Monday, the same spectacle is repeated, four or five thousand pilgrims joining in the second caravan. Formerly the numbers going to the Jordan each year was much greater, from fifteen to twenty thousand….”(Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible,Vol 2, New York, 1890 pp 404-405)
The Jordan and Christian Baptism
Today, every Catholic parish church celebrates the mystery of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan at its baptistery where new believers receive new life and regular believers remember their own baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some eastern Christian churches prefer to call their baptisteries simply “the Jordan.”
We will visit a baptismal site near the mouth of the Sea of Galilee. However, the most authentic site is further down the river in Jordanian territory at el-Maghtas, where a large church and pilgrim center are currently being built following excavations begun in 1996 by Jordanian archeologists. It is probably the “Bethany beyond the Jordan” mentioned in the New Testament where Jesus was baptized and John the Baptist preached.
The Jordan River may offer its own commentary on the mystery of death and resurrection of Jesus, expressed in his baptism. At one end is the Sea of Galilee brimming with life, and at the other end is the Dead Sea a symbol of death. The river holds these two realities together, and if we reverse its course we can see the gift God gives us through Jesus Christ.
Like him, we pass through the waters of baptism from death to life.
As “the true light, which enlightens everyone ” come into the world, Jesus came not only that we might see his glory but also that we might share in it. “From his fullness we have all received, grace for grace.” (John 1,16) His baptism in the Jordan and his presence at the marriage feast of Cana in Galilee – two themes from John’s gospel still closely connected with the Feast of the Epiphany– portray Jesus revealed as God’s Son who unites humanity to himself.
From earliest times the Feast of the Epiphany, like Easter, was a day for baptizing those who believed in his name. To them, “he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1, 12) The story of the Magi, from Matthew’s gospel, says that all people are called by God to share in the grace of Jesus Christ. “The Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Jesus Christ through the gospel.” (Ephesians 3, 5-6)
Some historians see the Feast of the Epiphany originating from early Jewish-Christian celebrations of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated God’s glory in covenant, light and water. In John’s gospel it’s during this same Jewish feast that the question is asked: Who is Jesus Christ? (cf John 7-10) He is God’s divine Son, the gospel says.
In some places the Feast of the Epiphany is also called the Feast of the Holy Kings or Three King’s Day. Gifts are given in memory of the Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Homes are blessed with holy water, in remembrance of that blessed home where the Magi found the Child and his mother.
In the western church, the feast of the Baptism of Jesus follows the celebration of the Epiphany as a separate feast, but it should be seen as part of that celebration.
“For on this day land and sea share between them the grace of the Saviour, and the whole world is filled with joy. Today’s feast of the Epiphany manifests even more wonders than the feast of Christmas.” (St. Proclus of Constantinople)