We know that once Adam and Eve sinned, the gates of heaven were closed to all mankind. All mankind was, in a sense, serving a sentence of imprisonment in sin.
Imagine serving a life sentence of imprisonment and suddenly you’re told you’ll be let out of prison. Most would want to run to that person who gave the word and thank him or her.
That word came in baptism, and it came from one no less than Jesus Himself. That moves me to want to spend quality time contemplating the difference between hell — exclusion from God for all eternity — and heaven — unity with the Father, Jesus, Mary and all the angels and saints for eternity. I’ll spend quality time prayerfully thanking Jesus for giving me the hope of living a life of eternal glory.
In different ways, all three readings tell us this for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
In the first reading, God prompts a group of people to shout out to His people words of comfort and hope. God has expiated Israel’s guilt, and Israel has received from God double for all her sins. Israel stands for all of God’s people.
“A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” In other words, God is on His way. To receive His gifts we need to remove all obstacles to His coming. “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low … Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all the people shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
When God speaks, His power goes forth to accomplish His wish.
God continues: “Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of God news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules by a strong arm; here is his reward with Him, his recompense before Him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; and in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.”
What might this shepherd feed His flock? Our deepest hunger and longing is for God’s mercy and the hope it brings. Even though we may not see this clearly, God offers us what our hearts most long for, life in eternal glory with Him. God takes the initiative, not only in telling us what is the deepest longing of our hearts, but also making the fulfillment of that longing possible. The readings joyfully shout this to us on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.
In the second reading, Paul speaks in a gentle and loving voice telling us: “The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ …” In other words, the power of God is saving us by training us to live a virtuous life.
God isn’t saying to us: “Look I died on the cross for you, now it is up to you to take advantage of my gift!” No. God says: “I will help train you every step of the way. I will place in your heart a desire to live a virtuous life. Even when you sin, I will be there to forgive you. I will never abandon you. All I need is your permission to allow me to participate in your life to make this happen. You are not on your own. I am with you every step of the way.”
All of this comes to a brilliant focus in the Gospel. Jesus asks John to baptize Him in the Jordan. “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”
Notice heaven was opened. It had been shut since the fall of Adam and Eve. Notice even more importantly, “The Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” Following the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Father speaks: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
The Father is well pleased in His Son because He knows that His Son will sacrifice Himself on Calvary to take away mankind’s sins. Life imprisonment is over for all who choose to come out and follow Jesus.
Jesus makes it possible for mankind to come out of prison; in addition, He and the Father will send the Holy Spirit to dwell in believers and give them a longing for virtue, a longing to please God, and a desire to live in such a way that others are captivated by their virtue and want also to be filled by the Holy Spirit.
Our baptism is the greatest thing that has ever happened to us. We would do well to spend quality time daily in prayer and in reflecting on Scripture so that we can come to a fuller appreciation of the glory that is coming our way if we are faithful.