We all like people who are prepared to get their hands dirty and not just sit in their armchair and talk about what everyone else should be doing. You could describe the coming of God in our human nature, body and soul, as God getting his hands dirty with us. He is not one for sitting on his eternal throne, dictating to us all on earth what to do. The Son of God, at the will of the Father and in the Spirit, rolled up his sleeves and immersed himself in our human condition.
During his hidden life on earth, growing up and learning how to be human, his immersion in our humanity deepened and matured. As God, he learnt how to love with a human heart, how to cry and suffer, how to laugh and play. He was not daft. He would quickly learn the way human beings do things, for good or for ill, and witness how they treat each other. He would see political and religious power at work, its pitfalls and its advantages. He learnt the severe discipline of work. His hands would not only get dirty as a carpenter and stonemason, but big and rough. He would be broad-shouldered and muscular. He would know what it meant to sweat and get cuts and skelves. He would be the guy next door.
For all that, one thing was still lacking in his full immersion into our humanity. And it was for that that, according to today’s Gospel, he left Nazareth and went to the Jordan. He came to begin the complete and final immersion of the divine into the human in a river with filthy water, the dual symbol of sin and death. John the Baptist gave baptism to those who sincerely made a firm purpose of amendment not to sin again. His was a baptism of repentance. But John’s baptism had no power to remove the sin confessed. It sank symbolically into the river. So, when Jesus came to be baptised, John was understandably aghast. He knew Jesus to be free from sin and therefore free of any need for a baptism of repentance or firm purpose of amendment not to sin again. John did not quite yet grasp that Jesus would not be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” by somehow commanding it to disappear from the world. No, he would take it away by immersing himself in it, by taking it on himself. St. Paul tells us that Jesus “became sin” so that in him we might become “the goodness of God.”
And so, Jesus plunges himself down deeply into the morally and mortally contaminated waters of sin and death. That downward movement which had begun in his conception in the womb of Mary was now beginning its terminal phase. Jesus just has to get to the bottom of that river, to the bottom of our sins, to the bottom of death. Consider the image of a pyramid, like one of the great Egyptian pyramids. Imagine it to be the size of the earth itself. Now, as if watching a computer simulation, imagine it flip on its tip. Now place it on the head of Jesus. The pyramid is the massive, hard, stone accumulation of all the sins of the world, committed from the beginning until the end of history. It is the collective death of the human race.
Mixing the symbols a bit, Jesus stands in the Jordan with the sin of the world upon him. As he sinks into the mud of the river, the pyramid crumbles into smithereens. All of that filthy mess Jesus now absorbs into himself, into that carpenter’s body. As he does so, though, his upward movement begins. He stands up erect and as he does so, the heavens open, the voice of the Father speaks and the holy Spirit is poured out upon him. But it does not stay within him. No, from his mouth Jesus pours forth a fountain of living water, welling up to eternal life, growing higher and wider than a thousand pyramids and filling the world and all its rivers once again with love, grace, truth, justice, holiness and peace.
The Gospel of the baptism of Jesus foretells the mystery of his suffering, death, resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh. It is the beginning of the final stage of the immersion of the Beloved Son into our real humanity and therefore the end of sin and death.
This immersion of Jesus in humanity desires to play itself out in the life of every human being and does play itself out in the life of every baptised person who responds to him. Unlike the baptism of John, the baptism of Jesus which we have all received does in fact take away our sin and unifies our entire being with the entire being of Jesus. We are all carpenters and stonemasons! Jesus is not to be sought or found somewhere beyond the stars. He is here. As I speak to you and look at you, Jesus in me looks through my eyes and speaks through my mouth. As you hear me and look at me, Jesus himself is looking at me and hearing me. In him we live and move and have our being. Baptism has nothing to do with being an admission ticket to a club. Baptism immerses into us the entire mystery of the Lord’s incarnation up to and including his Ascension into heaven. Baptism shatters the solitary confinement of our little individual worlds and opens us up into eternal life. For our true life is hidden with Christ in God. And Christ in God is not “out there” but “in here.”
We are therefore never alone. Loneliness is an illusion for the baptised person who wants to be conscious of what that means. We must look inwards and sink into the deep rivers of our own hearts and souls where we will see him and hear him and meet him and discover his love. When we meet Christ at the end of our lives, he will not come towards us from some distance, but emerge from within us.
And so, the task of the Christian life is to respond in kind: to get our hands dirty in God. To immerse ourselves in that running river of life and eternal love. As he came to absorb our sin into himself, so we must ask to absorb his divine life and grace into ourselves. It was for this that he came at all as a baby: that we might become adopted children of the Father.
There is a detail in today’s Gospel which I just love. Once John the Baptist accepts that Jesus wants to be baptised by him, the Gospel says, “at this, John gave in to him.” Give in to him! Give in to the Jesus within you! Let down the barrier! Surrender! Let him continue to suck out of you all that is not worthy of God or indeed of you! Let him continue to replace it a thousand times over with the divine power of his grace! Give in to him and let him in! Or rather, give in to him and let him out, out of you! Let him appear in you and through you!
At times in life we are afraid to risk doing a certain good thing which attracts us, which we would like to do, but which the fear and defensiveness in us tries to draw us back from with all kinds of “rational” observations. And yet, when the strength of the attraction is too much for us, we throw that so-called rationality to the wind and give in. And once we give in, we kick ourselves for having ever resisted. Where have I been all this time? What have I been doing and thinking? Why did I not see that giving in was the only thing worth doing?
And so it is with Jesus within. He takes nothing from us, but only gives us the rich blessings of his love, his presence. And when you at last experience him within, there is nothing that you cannot face. Even in deep suffering, in anxiety and depression, in a sense of being misunderstood or abandoned or rejected: it is in these very experiences that he is closest to us. These are experiences of the “bottom of the river” into which he desired to plunge on the Cross and in his act of dying. Your act of trust in his presence will unlock for you the flood gates of his comfort and consolation. The Cross is a difficult place to be but there is no better place to be. For on the Cross is the palpitating fullness of the love of the eternal God made visible in the meek Lamb of God, the body of the carpenter born of the Virgin. On the Cross, the answers to all of life’s troubles and tragedies are given, not for the mind to analyse, but for the heart to embrace.
So, get your hands dirty in Jesus, the divine and human Lover of your soul, more loving to you than any other lover you could ever imagine. Revive the grace of your baptism which we Catholics so little understand and even less draw on. It is our spiritual ammunition room. It is our underground storage of grace. It is like the river Jordan constantly flowing and soothing and healing the roots of our souls. In fact, it is the river of the City of God already running through us and brimming over, the river we will see with our own eyes when sin and death and history are over and the New Jerusalem shines forth in her eternal beauty. Give in to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and hear them sing to your soul in a beautiful Trio of redemptive music: “You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter. My favour rests on you.”