Today's celebration is one of great importance, containing many rich and important themes. It celebrates an end and a beginning, the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of the Church's year, ordinary time.
The boundary between these two areas is not clearly demarcated; the Baptism of the Lord contains what has gone before, and points to what is to come. At the beginning of Christ's public ministry we can detect some of the themes which we shall encounter in the course of the Church's year.
During the Christmas liturgies we experienced once again the birth of Christ, 'the fulfilment of prophecy and the focal point of history', as Cardinal Newman described it, in its two presentations in the Gospels. In the feast of the Nativity we witnessed the local presentation, witnessed by the Jewish people represented by Mary, Joseph and the lowly shepherds; in the feast of the Epiphany we witnessed the wider, grander presentation, when Christ was presented to all the nations of the earth, in the persons of the Magi.
We also bring into our understanding of the feast the dark element found in the nativity narratives, the killing of the innocents, a reminder that that the joy and peace associated with the birth of Christ, his mission, the mission of the Church, will always be opposed by sinful humanity. Today's feast marks the end of the closed, private period of Christ's life, and marks the beginning of the open, public ministry.
The two most important features in today's Gospel reading, marking the beginning of Christ's public ministry, are the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist, and the appearance of the Holy Spirit and the voice confirming the divine Sonship of Christ.
John's voice was heard clearly during the Advent liturgy, proclaiming the coming of the Saviour, and denying that he himself was the Messiah. John knew the limitations of his mission. He could proclaim and point the way only. John also knew the limitations of the baptism he conferred:
I baptise you with water, but someone is coming who is more powerful than I am he will baptise you with Holy Spirit and with fire.
The baptism conferred by John was concerned with repentance and the forgiveness of sins. It was not necessary for the sinless Christ to be baptised; he accepted baptism from John to identify himself with sinful humanity, whom he had come to redeem.
The Father proclaimed the divine Sonship of Christ:
You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
The Spirit then descended upon Christ, the final preparation for his mission When anointed by the Spirit he began his public ministry, the preaching and teaching of the kingdom.
Baptism confers life, but it is also connected with death; in order to gain new life, we must die to the old. The baptism of Christ foreshadowed his death. It was his mission to suffer, die and rise again.
When we received the sacrament of baptism, we were admitted into membership of the Church, the body of Christ, and became sharers in his mission. We were immersed in the waters, died and buried with him; we rise again because of the redemptive sacrifice of Christ.
The Church will explain to us the public ministry of Christ, the preaching of the kingdom, in the daily and Sunday readings. The divine, redemptive mission of Christ is still active. The kingdom will be preached and built up slowly and gently, often among the poor the outcasts, sinners, but whose poverty and weakness enabled them to grasp more easily divine truth. The mystery of the Trinity, present at the baptism of Christ, will be proclaimed: all peoples will be welcomed into the kingdom.
As we begin the Church's year, we do so in the knowledge of what has been conferred on us by our baptism, that we, too, have been commanded to proclaim the kingdom in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who were present when Christ was baptised in the Jordan.