Much of what I had to say about this week's celebration of The Baptism of the Lord relates back to an earlier post on the event of a baptism in my parish (entitled "To baptize or not to baptize"). What I focused on was the aspect of choice that Jesus exercised when we submitted to baptism himself.
To recap: ancient Judaism was more a racial question than one of religion. If one was born of Jewish parents, one was automatically Jewish, and no rite of initiation was required. Therefore, as a practicing Jew, Jesus would not have required baptism, as baptism in Judaism was generally only performed when a Gentile (non-Jew) converted to Judaism. Baptism was seen literally as a cleansing away of the sin and filth of a past lifestyle, and a fresh beginning. A clean slate, if you will.
But John (and later Jesus) were preaching a baptism of repentance. Their underlying message was that race and birthright did not guarantee salvation. In other words, your lineage did not impress God in the slightest. It was how you loved God and neighbour (or failed to) which was a deciding factor.
So John and Jesus were calling people to reconsider the Law. Not to do away with it, as Jesus makes clear elsewhere in the Gospels, but to seriously reconsider our motivation for following the law. John and Jesus seemed to have an issue with the blinkered self-righteous who followed the Law pedantically, but without love in their hearts for God or neighbour. They were calling us to invest those Laws with love.
So what Jesus baptism comes down to is choice: making the choice to life righteously as opposed to self-righteously, making the choice to love God and neighbour, making the choice to follow the path God had set before Him.
And here is the reality of the situation: Jesus could have turned away from his path at any point. He could have stopped speaking out, he could have stopped spreading his dangerous and radical Gospel, he could have lived a normal life without ever sticking his neck out.
But he chose not to.
Now here is something I remember from my youth: turning my back on God because I had anthropomorphized the Divine and conceived of God as a great chess player who was forcing me to do things and denying me certain things. I resented anyone pulling my strings...I still do, for that matter, but who doesn't, right?
I don't see God that way anymore, but I have become aware that there are paths I can follow that will lead me to happiness and fulfillment, and others that won't. I am aware that some (if not all) of the paths that scare me generally lead me to the greatest moments of fulfillment in my life.
And maybe this is what is meant by God saying "This is my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased" in the Gospel passage for today. It is not as though God would have said "You are a jerk and I hate you" had Jesus not made the gesture of submitting to his own baptism. Jesus felt God's love all the more because he had decided to follow a path of service and selflessness.
I truly believe that God wants us to be fulfilled. That does not always mean being comfortable or safe, but often comfort and safety are simply not fulfilling. It is therefore in following a "Godly" path that we meet our truest fulfillment. The greatest fulfillment we can possibly attain is when our will and God's will coincide; when our path and God's path are one in the same.