Fr John's Homily - The Holy Baptism of Jesus

13 January 2019 | General Interest


Baptism of Jesus

Lk 3.10-22,  Is 42.1-7, AA 10.34-38

As we know, there is much disillusionment with, and anger directed at the Catholic Church at present, both locally and globally, particularly with regard to what might be called the abuse crisis and the coverups, to protect the image of the Church and the offending clergy, with little consideration for victims until relatively recently.

The recent SBS historical documentary on the Pope (Who has seen it?), described as ‘the most powerful man on Earth’,  (But remember, in 1936, Stalin asked how many divisions – military, that is – has the Pope got?) provides an interesting coverage of papal history, warts and all, some of them being rather serious, arguably hitting the pits in 1492, when Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) took the job, even after the intrigues of earlier times, particularly related to 1378, a year of 3 popes, just like 1978, when I was ordained, except that the 3 Popes were concurrent back there, with one in Rome to keep the Italians happy, one in Avignon to keep the French happy, and then one in Pisa, elected to solve the problem, but to no avail at the time!  Power, money and politics all added up to human nature being corrupted, and going to the dark side.  It took till 1415 to sort it out then, but unsatisfactorily in some ways.  Meanwhile, the show went on at the grass roots, in many local communities, and as it does now, as no-one can deny the validity of the ‘Good News’ Gospel message proclaimed by Jesus, as a positive way of living life in family and community, with a commitment to service of others, particularly the needy.

Pope Francis has faced public opposition and hostility, as well as false allegations, in reaction to his down to earth proclamation of this Good News.  He has spoken out powerfully about many wrongs of the past and present, and consistently reminded us all – People of God, religious, priests, bishops and cardinals – of the dangers of being caught up in our own narrow little worlds of self-interest, and exclusion of those who are different in all sorts of ways. 

Robert Mickens, a Roman commentator, describes Francis as “a disruptive and prophetic voice.”  Just this last  week, he addressed more than 180 ambassadors, warning world leaders against rowdy or jingoistic and simplistic nationalism, rather than considering a view to the common good of all as global citizens.  Mickens describes it as a “manifesto on multinationalism.”  Once again, as a credible voice, he focuses on mercy and compassion, pointing out inequalities and injustice in the world, and speaking in defence of the poor, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Massimo Faggioli is a professional Italian theologian with a young family, living, lecturing and writing as a professor in Philadelphia, one of the places hard hit by the terrible scandal of clergy abuse.  Recently, he wrote an article titled: “Why I cannot even think about leaving the Catholic Church.” It’s not that it is his job that keeps him in, but his whole being is tied up with his faith and background. As he puts it: “It is Catholicism that helps me avoid the temptation to reduce Christian faith to politics, to personal or poIitical morality, or to social issues… I am not among those who are torn over whether to leave or stay in the Church. I do not stay because I have decided to stay in the Church. It is the Church that stays in me.”  He speaks of being born into  ‘Catholic Identity’, his ongoing need for a spiritual dimension in life (doesn’t that go for all of us?), the significance of sacraments as sacred signposts,  and the sense of belonging as global citizen of the Universal Church, saints and sinners all.  But let’s not deny the disillusionment and distrust which is current among many.

Well now, Baptism is our foundational or fundamental sacrament, the concrete measure of belonging to our faith community as followers of Jesus, but it’s not magic! It’s about growth, belonging and a continuing commitment to a living faith. Fortunately, rather than rebaptising, as was the practice pre-Vatican II and ecumenical reform and understanding, most of the Christian churches recognize each other’s baptism rituals as common ground.  John the Baptist’s call to repentance and faith prefigures our sacramental celebration of entry into life in a family of faith and a faith community.  

I used to joke with the local Baptist minister, Dave, father of 4 young children, at Seaforth, when I was parish priest at Manly, that his crowd left it too late, as we were getting in first, with infant baptism, (some of his parishioners were parents in mixed marriages, coming to me for infant baptism),  whilst the Baptist and Church of Christ practice is to have a blessing and welcome for infants, but then wait until at least teenage years, where there could be a personal response to understanding the significance of the commitment to Christian faith and life.  We all have our different traditions and need to respect that fact, of course. 

One of the problems today, and in the past, is the illusion of some, that baptism provides a ‘ticket’ to admission to a Catholic school.  In pastoral ministry, it can be very frustrating trying to disabuse people of this fact.  Moreover, it is more than a cultural thing to do, as everyone does it (perhaps not so much these days), nor should it be to keep grandma or the in-laws (or out-laws) happy.

Still, it is the touchstone of our Catholic practice, and I figure it’s always best to err on the side of presuming good will, genuine faith and commitment to raising a child as a good Christian first, and Catholic second!  The same goes for godparents, whom I like to remind of the privilege of accepting the invitation to fulfil the role, and the significant costs involved, in terms of time and even a bit of money (That gets their full attention!), remembering birthdays at least, and keeping in touch, as an ongoing intention. (My youngest niece Melanie, is now 21, and her godfather came from Hong Kong to be at the party, which I couldn’t make!!)

As you’d realize, I believe in the simple practice of welcoming parents preparing for Baptism with their children, (very much helped by Leanne Torr’s pastoral ministry)  at a Sunday Mass, as a means of making them conscious of a real connection with the local faith community, as many don’t have regular involvement, the statistic for Catholic Mass attendance being lower than 10% these days.   Nevertheless, encouragement and acceptance, rather than carping and criticising in a judgemental way, is the obvious way to engender the possibility of further presence. 

The fact that Catholic education is a priority for so many, especially in our primary and secondary schools in this region, points to my mind to an underlying concern for a spiritual dimension, moral values, and meaning in life,  more than just for a good education and healthy discipline, not just about input and control.  Well, that’s what we hope for, isn’t it?  And then there are the Sacraments of Eucharist and Confirmation, along the way, where involvement, and hopefully interest,  goes up!

Today’s Gospel raises questions about why Jesus had to be baptised by John the Baptist.  All 4 Gospels tell the story, with some variations.  It can be concluded that it was not about Jesus needing forgiveness of his own sins, but that his public ministry was about to begin, and that John’s words of warning and challenge, were to be followed up in a broader sense by Jesus, who doesn’t stay down by the riverside or withdraw to the desert (where he next heads) for long, but who ‘hits the road’ in word and action, striking the same ignorance, resentment and, in the end, outright rejection, by those who should have known better – the religious leaders,  Pharisees, Scribes or ‘Temple Police’, so to speak, and in some ways, the political,  rulers of the day.

Interestingly, Jesus never baptised, throughout the Gospels, but promises the Spirit to those who respond in faith.  Luke, in his neatness, removes John the Baptist from the scene, to clear the way for Jesus to continue his proclamation of the Kingdom.  And so we see the symbolism of water at Baptism as a sign of living in his love and his light, with the responsibility of showing the way of discipleship on our life’s journey, as we respond to the Spirit and follow Jesus on his journey and ours, in Luke’s Gospel this coming year.


john hannon                                                                  13th  January  2019


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Image:  Mosaic based on detail from The River by John August Swanson, St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, Glendale, CA