by Father Mike Stubbs
Throughout the ages, washing with water often has symbolically represented spiritual purification.
That is why the Hindus in India bathe in the Ganges River. That is why Muslims perform ritual ablutions at a fountain in the entrance to the mosque. And that is why John the Baptist was baptizing people in the Jordan River. Even Jesus took part, in order to provide us an example. We celebrate that event this Sunday, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
In Sunday’s first reading, Is 55:1-11, the prophet issues an invitation to God’s grace: “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!”
To our ears, this invitation easily points to baptism. The prophet’s words emphasize the gratuity of God’s grace, symbolized by food and drink. It is provided at no cost: “You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!” It only requires our receptiveness: “Listen, that you may have life.”
The prophet recognizes the vast distance that separates us from God: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” These words emphasize God’s transcendence, the difference between us and God.
Despite God’s distance from us on a metaphysical level, God’s compassion overcomes that obstacle. Just as rain and snow are able to bridge the gap between heaven and earth, so also God’s mercy is able to reach us and bring us life. That is what God tells us through the prophet:
“For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”
Consequently, God’s word always proves effective, because it brings us life and mercy. As we celebrate this feast of the Lord’s baptism, we remember our own baptism, in which God first extended to us the offer of grace. We ponder the significance of that gift and thank God for making it available to us.