By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
On this weekend the Catholic Church throughout the world celebrates the culmination of the Christmas season with the Baptism of the Lord Jesus, the manifestation of God’s beloved Son in the waters of the Jordan River to Israel initially, but in short order, to all the nations. Nearly one year ago I traveled with the Knights and Ladies of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher to the Holy Lands, and the renewal of one’s Baptism vows at the Jordan is pivotal on pilgrimage to the holy places.
Christians from all corners of the earth, and from every branch of Christianity come to the bend in the Jordan River where tradition maintains that the Lord Jesus began his public ministry under the gaze of God the Father and the grace of the Holy Spirit. Recall that John the Baptist preached in the wilderness and people left their homes and comfort zones to flock to him for the Baptism of Repentance. This region of the Holy Land was barren terrain 2000 years ago and remains such today. After coming up out of the water, the Spirit of God led Jesus deeper into this wasteland for 40 days and nights to fast, pray and be tempted. When it was over, he embraced his mission of salvation culminating with his life-giving death and resurrection.
Borrowing the metaphor from last weekend’s feast of the Epiphany it is the same star of faith that guided the Magi that draws pilgrims to God’s beloved Son in order to lay down one’s life before him, at or in the Jordan River. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 628) offers this teaching on Baptism under the subtitle “Buried with Christ…” Baptism, the original and full sign of which is immersion, efficaciously signifies the descent into the tomb by the Christian who dies to sin with Christ in order to live a new life.
“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6,4)
What is this newness of life? When the people came to John the Baptist at the Jordan River, they understood that like the water that was certain to evaporate in the desert heat so too their sinful attitudes and behavior must also vanish. And so, they asked John “What must we do, then?” John gave them directives that were specific to their states in life. If you have surplus clothing or food be generous with those who are in need. Tax collectors, he shouted, do not cheat the people beyond what has been determined. He commanded soldiers not to bully or extort the locals who are in your military sphere (Luke 3, 10-14). Likewise, because of our Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is unavoidable for us to ask the question regularly, what are we to do, and to walk in newness of life. But like Jesus, our identity precedes our deeds.
We are God’s beloved children, saved by the blood of the Lamb of God and anointed in the Holy Spirit. Flowing from this relationship we are tasked with building up the Kingdom of God. In the letter to the Ephesians we, as in many passages of the Scripture, are given our identity and marching orders. “Because it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith, not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live to do the good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph. 2, 8-10)
So, what are we to do? Relatively speaking, in the blah month of January there are compelling ways to serve in the Lord’s name. Pro-life activities abound on behalf of the unborn. Novenas, vigils, the annual pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. and countless prayer services throughout the nation in every diocese. Have these efforts and more made a difference in the past 46 years since Roe v. Wade? At the grassroots level where it matters most there are far fewer abortions each year than during the peak years decades ago. There are far more centers around the nations that recognize the inalienable dignity of life in the womb than there are that destroy God’s handiwork.
When the actor, Jim Caviezel, came to town back in September one stop along the way was the Neonatal-Intensive Care Unit at Saint Dominic’s Hospital where we stood at the life support units for two premature twins who were born at 23 weeks. Mr. Caviezel expressed the awe of all in attendance: “This is like looking at the face of God.” Although the Catholic Church is weighed down by scandal at this time, our prophetic voice on behalf of the unborn will not waiver.
What else is happening in January? We are now at the end of the annual observance of National Migration Week, and thanks be to God for the many people in our diocese who “welcome the stranger” in our midst. The feast of the Epiphany celebrates the Lord’s birth as a light to the nations, whether they remain at home or travel far and wide.
What are we to do? The annual commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a cherished national holiday, compels us to not waiver in our efforts to build a society of greater justice and peace for all races and ethnic groups in these United States. Sister Thea Bowman, Servant of God, pray for us.
What more are we to do? May we strengthen our commitment on behalf of all victims of sexual abuse in our Church and in our society, restoring their dignity as beloved children of God the Father. May our passion on behalf of life, justice and peace in all areas flow from our conviction that we are God’s beloved children, saved in the blood of the Lamb, and anointed by the Holy Spirit “for the good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do.”
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz