Inspired by the baptism of fire

9 January, 2022 Baptism of the Lord, Year C

Today marks a turning point in the liturgical year when we move out of the Christmas festive season into Ordinary Time.

We mark that turning point with the gospel account of a major turning point in Jesus’ life and in salvation history. It comes with the Baptism of Our Lord. For Jesus, his baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry.

For salvation history, his baptism heralds the coming of a new age, a new era. Gone now is the era of the Old Testament, when the people of Israel, guided by the Law and the prophets, waited with great hope and expectation for the coming of the Messiah and the liberation that he would bring. He was come now.

Jesus, however, wasn’t the saviour they were expecting. For a while, John the Baptist looked like the one. But John had no doubts. He recognised Jesus as the Lamb of God, and proclaimed that “He (Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Jesus’ baptism culminates with the appearance of the Holy Spirit, descending on Jesus “in bodily shape, like a dove” and a voice from heaven proclaiming: “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.”

The references to the Holy Spirit remind us of two other significant moments in salvation history. Firstly, in the story of creation in Genesis 1, the Holy Spirit hovered of the earth when it was formless void and shrouded in darkness, and heaven and earth were then completed with all their vast array.

Secondly, in the story of Noah and the Flood (Genesis 6-9), it is a dove which brings the good news of the end of the Flood, a new start, a new creation. This then is to say that to be baptised with the Holy Spirit is to make a new start, to be renewed and re-created. It means a major turning point in our lives.

But John the Baptist proclaims that the baptism which Jesus brings is not only with the Holy Spirit but with fire. This reference to fire reminds us of the tongues of flame that descended on the apostles at Pentecost and that inspired them to go forth fearlessly and preach the gospel to the whole world.

So too does the fire of baptism inspire and urge us. Know too, however, that the fire will also divide us, exposing the division between those who accept and those who reject the offer of salvation and the demands of the Kingdom.

The gospel account of the baptism of Jesus reminds us of our own baptism when we were made into sons and daughters of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, and commissioned to spread the good news of Jesus’ coming and the gift of God’s grace in the world. Let us give thanks and take heed from Titus who urges us in today’s first reading to give up everything that does not lead to God and have no ambition but to do good.

Anne Hunt

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