Posted January 13, 2016
Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Luke 3: 5-22
When the Gospels place the story of John the Baptist at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, they are no doubt simply reporting historical fact. But they want to claim that this historical fact carries a theological message. It is a message that concerns both Christianity and Judaism. For if John the Baptist is the beginning of the Christian story, he is at the same time the climax of the story of Israel. He embodies Israel’s past and Israel’s hopes for the future. His mission is to prepare Israel for a new reality that will see God’s ancient promises fulfilled. When Jesus is baptized by John, he too takes upon himself Israel’s past and Israel’s future.
St Luke, whose account of the baptism narrative we have heard today, hints at a still wider significance for Jesus’ baptism. For he follows it immediately with an account of Jesus’ ancestry. St Matthew too has an account of Jesus’ ancestry, but he places it, more logically, at the very beginning of his Gospel, before the narrative of Jesus’ birth. St Luke follows a theological, rather than a logical, scheme when he places his account of Jesus’ ancestry thirty years later, immediately after Jesus’ baptism, apparently as a commentary on the significance of the baptism.
We see what St Luke is getting at when we note that whereas St Matthew, the ‘Jewish Gospel’, traces Jesus’ ancestry to Abraham, the father of Judaism, St Luke’s Gospel, the Gospel of universal embrace, traces Jesus’ ancestry to Adam, the father of humankind. By placing the account of Jesus’ ancestry immediately after Jesus’ baptism, and by tracing back Jesus’ origins to Adam, St Luke wants his readers to see Jesus and John and Judaism in the context of God’s plan for mankind as a whole. He does not forget that the Bible story begins not with Abraham but with Adam. God never loses sight of mankind as a whole, even if some parts of the Bible sometimes do. God’s ultimate purpose in calling Abraham was not to create a particular religion but through him to bless all the nations of the world. ‘In him all the nations of the earth will count themselves blessed.’ Hence St Luke’s insistence at key points in his Gospel, and throughout the Acts of the Apostles, that Christ’s message is intended for ‘all the nations’. Hence also his characterization of Jesus as ‘light for the illumination of the nations’, and of St Paul, as ‘the light of the nations’.
This universalism is already apparent in St Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ baptism. When Jesus was baptized by John he took upon himself not only Judaism but, through Judaism, the destiny of humankind. Jesus’ baptism therefore is not an item in the calendar of a particular religion but an event in the history of God’s relationship with mankind. So also St Paul, in calling Christ ‘the second Adam’, or ‘the last Adam’, wanted to tell us that Christ transcends religions: his meaning is to be found not in any religion as we understand religion, nor in any single ethnic or cultural group, but in the universal scope of humankind.
We have perhaps lost sight of the universal significance of Jesus’ baptism. That may be because we have lost sight of the universal scope of our religion. It would be a glorious expansion into God’s horizons for us to understand that the goal of Christianity is the flourishing of humankind. Other religions too must be judged meaningful in so far as they have in view the wellbeing of humankind. Unfortunately, many Christians, Jews and Muslims, and adherents of other religions have lost sight of the total picture; they have held God captive in their own horizons. It was apparently in protest against this that Barak Obama said: ‘Democracy demands that the religiously motivated must translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific values.’ He surely has a point, though I am not sure why he thinks it is democracy that he is describing. For in fact he is describing not democracy but a generous humanism, such as Jesus embraced when he identified with humankind at his baptism. He is describing the humanism that inspired St Paul’s words to the Philippians: ‘Set your minds on whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ There is nothing ‘religion-specific’ about this; nor does there need to be. For, like St Luke, St Paul never lost sight either of Adam or of the universal embrace of Christ’s humanity.
It is a pity that we have allowed advocacy for humanity as such to become the preserve of the humanists and the secularists, as if religions were only interested in the partisan promotion of their own cause. The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord invites us to reclaim humanism from the humanists, and the secular from the secularists. The British National Secular Society has quoted those words of President Obama with approval. And if indeed that society exists to promote ‘whatever is true, whatever is just, whatever is lovely’, we should all be scurrying off to become members of it, if indeed it turns out that that is what motivates it. You must judge for yourself. You may find that secularism is less passionately committed to humanity than it is to its own polemics. In the midst of the ‘I am Charlie’ chorus that followed the massacre of the Charlie Ebdo staff, the lead editorial of the magazine proclaimed: ‘All those who have proclaimed “I am Charlie” should know that this means, “I am secularism”.’ Maybe. But you may wish to say: I am not Charlie, for I am not the kind of secularism that thinks that you promote human flourishing by riding roughshod over the sensibilities of innocent people. You may wish to say instead: I am secularism in the sense that I embrace the whole world in my love of truth, in my compassion, in my desire to promote all that is true and lovely in humankind, as Jesus did, and Paul, and many people before and after them, of all religions and none.
Religion is authentic in so far as it has at heart the integrity and the prospering of the entire human family. One sees the truth of this in the light of its opposite, I mean, in societies riven by religious sectarianism. A sect by definition divides humanity into ‘them’ and ‘us’. Of course different religions, and atheistic secularism itself, will have different insights to offer as to the right way of prospering humanity. They will differ as to whether it is the disciples of Jesus, or of Moses, or of Muhammad, or of reason alone, that most genuinely points humanity to the realization of its noblest potential. But in this they will have failed already if they have created divisions in our common humanity.
May today’s feast expand our minds and hearts to embrace the humanity with which God, through his Son, identified himself.
Fr Tom Deidun