The Baptism of the Lord

Joseph L. Farrell, O.S.A.
Curia Generalizia Agostiniana
Rome, Italy

Is 42:1-4, 6-7 or Is 40:1-5, 9-11
Ps 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10 or Ps 104:1b-2, 3-4, 24-25, 27-28, 29-30 Acts 10:34-38 or Ti 2:11-14; 3:4-7
Lk 3:15-16, 21-22

In the study of behavioral analysis, there is a theory that positive reinforcement is an effective way to increase the probability of a particular desirable behavior to be repeated or continued. The positive stimulus (affirmation, recognition, reward) serves to encourage the continuation of the behavior connected to the positive response. Whether in family dynamics or classroom management, the recognition of desired behavior in a positive way helps to motivate the child, spouse, sibling, parent, student, etc., to continue to act in that desired way.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the last day of the liturgical season of Christmas. In the Gospel of Luke, we hear of the tremendous and fascinating account of Jesus being baptized by John. While Jesus was praying after his baptism, “heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” Then we are told of voice which came from heaven and said, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” How’s THAT for positive reinforcement? The witnesses of Jesus’ baptism and of the events immediately following must have been in awe at what was happening. I like to imagine that Jesus was also in awe at what took place. It must have been a real moment of affirmation for Jesus to hear those complimentary words coming from God, his Father. Was it an action of positive reinforcement on the part of God to influence a desired behavioral outcome? If it was, what then was the desired behavior that was being positively reinforced with those words, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”?

A possible answer to this question comes from what we have been celebrating throughout this Christmas season: the eternal Word, made human. The humble action of the Son of God, empties himself to take on human nature. This act of complete humility, where the greatest of all and creator of all, enters the human experience as a weak, dependent baby is a gift that God offers to the whole of creation. The greatest of all, becomes the least. The Word becomes an infant, without words. From the beginning of his earthly life, the Son of God demonstrates the virtue of humility and this virtue continues to be demonstrated throughout his time on earth.

Today’s celebration of the baptism of the Lord, is another example of his humility. The Son of God, in order to participate in all that is human, also participated in the ritual of baptism. The sinless one, participated in the cleansing waters of baptism, not to exalt himself as having something greater than all others, rather, to offer to the world the example of humbly accepting his filial relationship with God, the Father. I believe that this act of humility is the behavior that God, the Father was reinforcing in a positive way with the encouraging words, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

This is supported by the prophecy of the first reading today from Isaiah, “Thus says the LORD: Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased.” A humble lifestyle and attitude to life was also reinforced in our second reading from Paul’s letter to Titus, “reject godless ways and worldly desires and live temperately, justly and devoutly in this age.” Throughout the scriptures we hear of this virtue of humility being praised and encouraged in those who live it and so it is consistent with Scriptures that God, the Father, would affirm this virtue in his Son.

The tradition of our Church continued to value and praise the virtue of humility. For example, in one of his expositions on the Psalms, St. Augustine preached to the people of his congregation: “To glorify ourselves over the abundant graces we have received is a danger of which we must be extremely wary. No one must be proud over any gift of God, but rather preserve humility and obey the injunction given by scripture, The greater you are, the more deeply you are to humble yourself; then you will find favor with God (Sir 3:20). I cannot emphasize enough to you, beloved, how perilous it is to be proud about any gift received from God.” (Exposition of Psalm 130, 7)

The greater you are, the more deeply you are to humble yourself; then you will find favor with God. So the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, found favor with God, through the deep and loving humble act of becoming one like us. How then can we respond in our lives? How does what took place at Jesus’ Baptism, affect who we are and what we do today? We must search our hearts and ask God to assist us to live the way of humility. We must, like the Son of God, empty ourselves and live humble lives and search always for the way of humility.

We are certainly blessed with the grace of God we receive through baptism, let this grace not be a reason to glorify ourselves, but to humble ourselves. This, I believe will clear the way for us to discover the many ways we can live, as sons and daughters, in response to our relationship with God. Our response may come in the form of forgiveness, or asking for forgiveness. It may come in serving the physical, spiritual, emotional, educational or financial needs of the poorest among us. It may come in being open to respond to the vocational call of God to serve the church as a religious sister, brother or priest. There are many ways we can humbly serve our God. The humble lives we are called to lead then, will be in imitation of our brother, Jesus Christ, who at his baptism heard those affirming and encouraging words, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”