The Christmas Season concludes with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Surprisingly or not, there are people who may not know this. For many Christmas ends in a number ways: on Christmas Day, on civil New Year’s Day, or on Epiphany (whenever it is celebrated). But the truth is that it concludes with Jesus’ baptism. I use “concludes” purposefully, because an ending is finite. Endings halt something from continuing, but conclusions can lead to further developments, and this is what the feast of Jesus’ remarkable baptism does. It leads us to furthering what it means to believe and to act as believers in the world.
It is not a feast to educate us on baptism, let that be the focus of the Easter Season. Nor is it really a feast to debate why Jesus submits to baptism at all. No, Christmas concludes with this pivotal moment, the beginning of Jesus of Nazareth’s earthly ministry. And it is a troubling moment if we remember Simeon’s prophecy that Jesus “is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted” (Luke 2:34). So an unpredictable life moves forward with baptism, and the impact of his baptism, trouble and glory, resounds in the lives of us who are baptized.
Gregory of Nazianzus wrote that the baptism of Jesus ushered an unexpected beginning to his ministry. Isaiah anticipated a “rending of the heavens” with armies of angels descending to wreak havoc, punishment, and destruction upon a deserving sinful and wicked humanity. Yet, at the baptism of Jesus the heavens “open of their own accord.” What descends are not vengeance seeking angels, but the Spirit, which empowers Jesus for his mission on earth. A mission “to bring glad tidings to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Luke 4). If this is true of Jesus, then it is true of all the baptized.
This is why Christmas concludes on what some might see as a troubling note. With calls for so much vengeance, division, discord, and unrest in our world at this moment, such a mission for believers to undertake might seem improbable if not impossible.
We realize that Christmas is not a momentary respite from the ills that plague our communities, that it is not merely a frivolous distraction or occasion for inane bliss. Christmas opens our eyes and minds and hearts to what can be, what must be, if creation and humanity within it can flourish. It can only come about to the extent we cooperate with God’s plan of salvation, employing our own gifts and talents to further God’s work. This realization may be all too much to handle. All we wanted was the diversion, the senseless joy, but with Jesus’ baptism, linked as it is to our own, we must acknowledge that Christmas asks, if not requires us, to make Jesus’ mission our own.
It is certainly not an easy mission, and it is mission that may seem foolish to some, destined for rejection and misunderstanding to others, and yet it is still our mission. As the prophets tell us all through Advent, so, too, at Christmas’s conclusion, we need to wake up. We need to awaken ourselves to an image yet to be more widely included among the other images of Christmas: an adult Christ, baptized by John, about whom a voice from heaven affirms “beloved and well pleasing.” God speaks these same words to each of us when we pass through the waters of baptism.
And this why we celebrate year after year the memory of a child born for us. A child whose life offers us the way, the only way, to understand and embrace ourselves as God’s very image. An image meant to live and to act and to respond appropriately in this good creation with which God has gifted us. We accept this great commission, this awesome responsibility, because Christmas enshrines the profound memory that God creates us and all creation good. God could not become one like us if we and creation at our fundamental cores were anything less.