January 9th/10th 2021

posted 11 Jan 2021, 03:14 by Parish Office

Homily for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Year B (9 & 10/1/21)

Shortly after Christmas Day, I found the time one evening to watch the film Paul. Apostle of Christ. It covers the last days of the Apostle St Paul’s life, imprisoned in Rome and awaiting execution. The film is a 15 because it contains a few gruesome scenes of the persecution of Christians at that time, but it’s well worth viewing. Some people, when they are in prison, try to break out. Instead, the prison’s prefect, played by Olivier Martinez, tries to work out why St Luke, played by Jim Caviezel, has broken into prison to see St Paul. Luke has already written his Gospel, and now wants to capture, from Paul’s mouth, his life story, before he is put to death.

The film follows the scriptural accounts of St Paul, but it also obviously has to fill in a few gaps in order to create the dialogue for the film. It shows St Paul as a real human being. For him, martyrdom is not an easy thing to sail through. He is attacked by the devil, who reminds him of all the things he did when he was younger: the Christians he killed as he tried to put an end to what he thought was a blasphemy and a heresy spreading around the Roman Empire. He said that at that time, he knew what the Law was, but he didn’t understand love. In one of the deleted scenes on the DVD, he speaks before the Jewish leaders and says that he thinks they have been a bit too soft on the Christians. The Christians have dispersed from Jerusalem due to the persecution, but now they are gathering in Damascus, and Damascus is a location where all sorts of traffic is passing through. If they are not stopped, then Christianity will spread everywhere (you could perhaps say, like a virus). His plan is to head down there and get rid of Christianity from Emmaus. The rest, as they say, is history. On the way to Emmaus, he falls to the ground as a blinding light calls to him and asks, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul gives his reply, which I think sounds a bit strange – was he already having doubts about what he was doing? - “Who are you Lord?” “I am Jesus and you are persecuting me.” He goes to Damascus a blind man, and three days later Ananias gives him back his sight. Then he is baptised. And that changes everything.

He was a man of youthful determination and energy. He knew the Jewish Law, but he didn’t know about love, about God’s grace. But with his baptism, all his previous sins, grievous as they were, were washed away. But at the end of his life, the devil is tormenting St Paul with his past. Can you really be forgiven for all this, he implies. It requires faith for him to believe that he has been forgiven, and not to go back over the past and doubt the forgiveness he received in baptism.

In the Gospel today, we hear St Mark’s account of the baptism of Christ. People have asked, why did Our Lord need to be baptised? He had no Original Sin to be washed away, and He was sinless, so why was He baptised? The answer is, not that He needed the grace of baptism, but rather it was necessary so that He could give baptism itself His grace. In the second reading, St John speaks, perhaps a bit obscurely, about belief in Jesus as the Son of God who came by water and blood, not with water only, with the Spirit as another witness. What does that mean? I looked it up to find an answer. The bit about the Spirit as another witness refers back to the Gospel, where the Spirit descended on Jesus and the Father’s voice was heard: “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you”. So the Spirit and the Father witnessed that He was the One that John had been preparing people for. But what about water and blood though? My commentary said that “water” stands for the water of baptism, whilst “blood” stands for the crucifixion. Our salvation comes to us because Christ died for our sins, and we share in that salvation through our baptism. The Spirit witnesses that Christ is the One we must follow.

So in a sense, our lives are a bit like St Paul. It may be that we were baptised as adults, and had a lot of sins washed away then, or maybe we were baptised as babies and so it was only Original Sin that was washed away at that point, requiring confession for our sacramental forgiveness of sins. But either way, when we are forgiven, we are forgiven. It’s no good letting the devil torment us with the question of whether we were really forgiven or not. We have been given the free gift of God’s grace, which cannot be taken away from us (although we can commit sins later on). We should rejoice in our sacramental forgiveness – it’s something to celebrate, just like in today’s psalm response: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation”.

At the end of the film, St Paul is beheaded for his faith. He bears no hard feelings to those who execute him. He says to St Luke beforehand that to him, life is Christ and to die is gain. His whole life looks towards Christ, and it was through the grace of baptism and the Cross that his whole life was turned around. He dies in his faith, and receives faith’s reward.

We may not be executed for our faith. But like St Paul, we have to trust to the end in God’s mercy. To live is Christ and to die is gain, and it has been made possible through the grace of our baptism.