I wonder if the word IMMERSION means anything to you. IMMERSION was a catchword for my generation in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. It was usually part of a program of formation that students, seminarians, and religious in my younger years were required to undergo, over and above our usual academic and spiritual formation programs.
We were told that it was important not to remain in an ivory tower, not to be fence-sitters, but to be intelligently involved in social issues. It was actually an influence of the activism of those decades.
We opened our minds to other ideas, including socialist ideas, but from the lenses of the Gospel and the social teachings of the Church. Somehow we felt the need to immerse in the conditions of daily wage earners, factory workers, farmers and fisherfolk, the urban poor and rural poor communities. We lived with them, worked with them, ate their food, and listened to their stories.
The whole experience was of course guided by facilitators and processed by our formators. They explained to us that it was important to get to know the poor up close, before we could preach meaningfully and effectively to them. It was important to feel with them, experience their pains and struggles before we could even dare to speak to them or speak for them, or even lead them.
It is this experience that comes to my mind on this day as we celebrate the feast of the BAPTISM of Jesus. The word “BAPTISMA, BAPTIZEIN” comes from Greek, and its literal meaning is IMMERSION.
I remember one activist friend who criticized the kind of immersion programs organized for the students of elite schools whom he called SOSYAL and BURGIS. He said, “Hindi sila bumababad, sumasawsaw lang.” (They don’t soak in; they just take a quick dip.)
Well, actually even the Tagalog word “babad” does not yet accurately describe BAPTISM, which is closer to the word LUBOG — total immersion. It always goes with the danger of drowning, of dying, of not being able to emerge alive anymore.
It is what the Son of God himself had to go through — when he emptied himself of his divinity in order to immerse himself totally into the human condition.
This is precisely why the water of Baptism, before it can stand for new life has to symbolize death. It is about the process of dying and rebirthing. For us Christians, baptism means dying to the old and sinful humanity of Adam and being reborn into the new humanity of Christ — as children of God.
Somebody asked me why John the Baptist chose the river Jordan as venue for his ritual immersion. If you want to know the answer, I suggest you read the Book of Joshua, Chapter 3.
People are familiar with the story of the crossing of the Red Sea as the beginning of the liberation of the Hebrew slaves in the Book of Exodus. But most people are not familiar with the story of the crossing of the River Jordan as a prelude to the liberated people’s entry into promised land. You read that in the Book of Joshua — how the river Jordan got split up as the priests who carried the ark of the covenant stepped on the water. It is a good metaphor for baptism: you have to be a bearer of the covenant and ready for immersion if you wish to be able to cross over the barriers and experience a life of freedom as sons and daughters of God.
The other Biblical passage that I recommend is from the 2nd Book of Kings, Chapter 5. It is about the story of Naaman, the Syrian military commander who had leprosy, and who felt insulted when he was told by the prophet Elisha to immerse himself seven times in the water of the Jordan river in order to be cleansed of his disease. He came bringing an endorsement from the king and a lot of gifts, and demanded attention. His ego was hurt because he was not given the special treatment he expected from the prophet, and he felt that it was below his dignity to soak himself in the muddy water of the Jordan. And who eventually persuades him to humbly obey the prophet? An Israelite slave girl. This is another good metaphor for baptism: immersion demands humility and a stripping of one’s ego if we want to be cleansed of the disease of sin.
Finally, the experience of immersion disposes us for God’s revelation. Mark tells us “On coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.” Immersion opens our hearts and allows us to hear God’s voice.
I remember the former superior general of the SVDs, Father Tony Pernia, drawing laughter from the participants of the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God in 2008 when he said, “Missionaries must serve as the Church’s hearing aid.”
Sometimes, we don’t realize that we just don’t hear God anymore. Isaiah once said, “Gross is the heart of this people, they hardly hear with their ears…” (Mat 13:14, Isa. 6:9). Immersion into God’s grace enables us to hear God’s voice. It enables us to listen not just to what is said, but even to that which is not said! Immersion makes us truly attentive. It enables us to hear, not the voice of a judge but the voice of a merciful father.
I once heard a group of men in a drinking spree singing an obscene song about “Gloria Labandera.” It says she goes into the water and her foot gets wet but the rest of her body is dry. As they progress in their song, they say she goes deeper into the water and then her legs get wet, and then her knees get wet, and then her thighs get wet.
Maybe Christian life is like that; it is about getting wet in stages. Some are really just dipping in, others are already wading up to their knees, still others are soaking in. But the invitation of Jesus is to dare to plunge, to immerse totally, to not be afraid to drown if we want to truly live to the full.
Homily of Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan for the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism, Jan. 10, 2021, Mk 1:7-11