A few years ago, in my continued quest to fill book shelves (and my Kindle) with books I want to read but won’t get to, I stumbled across another great bargain of a book for 99 cents that came with a twist)–a music album to download to accompany the book, which friends of the author composed just for the occasion. In How to Survive a Shipwreck, Jonathan Martin, a Pentecostal preacher and author, writes about the shipwreck of his life in losing a congregation, a marriage, and seemingly himself. But somehow in connecting to the waters and catastrophe of the shipwrecks of life, he connects all of it to baptism.
It is these primordial waters that we come from, the same water that poured out of the woman you called mother in the hours before you were born. It is into these dark waters that you must return, into this primitive abyss, into this watery grave. You must return again to the chaos of the world you knew before you started trying to build a world you could control—back to the bottom of the ocean where you once lay, submerged. In secular terms, we call this phenomenon “drowning”; in the Christian tradition, we call it “baptism” . . . The waters that drown you are the same waters that will save you; and the same sea that is pulling you under is the sea that will make you new. (How to Survive a Shipwreck by Jonathan Martin, pp 22, 24.)
In today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we connect to the earlier part above, the hours before you were born, as we moved ever so swiftly from Advent to Christmas to Baptism now. In our own Catholic sensibility of the sacramental life, babies and baptism go hand-in-hand. In the Gospel from Matthew, though, the baptism of Jesus is connected to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It seems a little out of place. What sins did this baptism wash away for Jesus? What “beginning” to Jesus ministry was needed beyond the Annunciation, the Magnificat, or any other Advent- or Christmas-related event? Baptism and repentance seem a little out of place.
When we think that the waters that drown us are the waters that save us, though, today’s feast makes sense. From the Garden of Gethsemane, the crucifixion, the burial clothes and being placed in the tomb, the words most needed for Jesus to hear might have been the voice from the heavens we hear today: This is my beloved Son. The moments we need to hear we are loved are usually when we are at our lowest. The people who need to be told they are beloved and worth human dignity are those on the margins, at least from the perspective of our Precious Blood spirituality.
May this feast of the Baptism of the Lord remind us of the voice from the heavens this day, calling Jesus beloved. May we remember the same words spoken over anyone who receives the waters of baptism: beloved. May we hear those same words in our own drowning and shipwrecks of life, and may we offer the same to those facing their own storms and trials.
To view the full scripture reading, click here.
Fr. Jim Smith, C.PP.S., is the parochial vicar of the St. Henry cluster of parishes in and around St. Henry, Ohio.