Today is the last day of the Church’s Christmas season. Jesus’ birth has now been celebrated. His public life comes next. His baptism begins it.
The end of Christmas is not just the putting down of all Christmas decorations–the Belen (Nativity Scene), Christmas tree, Christmas lights and others. The end of Christmas is not going back to our ordinary past lives as if no change happened in our lives. As we say in Filipino–balik sa dating ugali or BSDU (back to old ways).
The end of Christmas is also a beginning–the beginning of Jesus’ mission. This is what we celebrate today–the baptism of Jesus as the beginning of his mission. As we commemorate the baptism of our Lord, we are also invited to return to our own baptism. The end of Christmas calls us to relive our baptismal identity in our daily ordinary lives. The end of Christmas is the beginning of the work of Christmas.
The readings for today’s Baptism of the Lord talks about the meaning of baptism and mission of Jesus. The first reading from the prophet Isaiah, talks about what kind of a servant Jesus will be.
Thus says the LORD:
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.
The Second Reading spells out what baptismal living looks like: “reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly.” This is the rebirth to which God calls us.
In the gospel, we saw how the Baptism of Our Lord was the united action of one God, three Persons. The Father called out from heaven, “This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” The Spirit descended on Jesus after he was baptized, “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”
In reliving our baptism in the context of today’s realities, it might also be helpful to look back at the history of the sacrament of baptism. R. Alan Streett, Senior Research Professor of Biblical Theology at Criswell College, Dallas, Texas, in his book, Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism, A Rite of Resistance, examined the development of the sacrament of baptism within the context of the Roman Empire and its relationship to Roman power.
Streett claims that Christ-followers borrowed the term sacramentum and used it to express their loyalty to Christ and his kingdom. Tertullian (160 CE‒225 CE) identified baptism specifically as the Christian sacramentum and contrasted it to a Roman soldier’s pledge of loyalty to the Emperor and Empire (Tertullian, Bapt. 4.4–5; Idol. 19.2). Just as a soldier upon his oath of allegiance was inducted into Caesar’s army, so a believer was initiated by the sacrament of baptism into God’s kingdom. Each vowed faithful service to his god and kingdom.
When Christ-followers submitted to baptism and pledged their allegiance to a kingdom other than Rome and a king other than Caesar, they participated in a politically subversive act. Through the sacramentum of baptism they joined a movement that rejected Rome’s public narrative, ideology, hierarchical social order, and Caesar’s claim to be Lord over all. Baptism, thus, became a rite of resistance, a politically subversive act.
As a sacramentum, baptism was, in Richard DeMaris’ term, a “boundary crossing ritual”. When crossed, it meant breaking formal ties with the past, declaring loyalty to another Lord, and accepting a new and alternative identity—that of a Christ-follower. Hence, baptism was a political act of subversion, a rite of resistance against the prevailing power structures that often led to persecution and even death.
This historical context and lesson about the sacrament of baptism challenges us to relive baptism today as a transformed public life that reflects Christ-likeness in the midst of a culture of violence and human oppression. The sacrament of baptism calls us to radically redefine our lives in accord with covenantal kingdom principles. This is not easy; to break with the predominant culture and follow Christ is often costly.
The Baptism of Our Lord is a reminder for us of the counter-cultural witness of our baptismal identity today. At the end of this Christmas season, we have been empowered by Christ, who became flesh and dwelt among us, to practise the true spirit of Christmas throughout the year. In this light, I would like to end with a litany called “The Work of Christmas” composed by Howard Thurman, an African-American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
 R. Alan Streett, “Baptism as a Politically Subversive Act,” The Bible and Interpretation, December, 2018. Accessed at https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/baptism-politically-subversive-act#_ftn3.