When the angel appeared to St. Joseph to announce the birth of Jesus Christ, the heavenly emissary informed the new father that he should name his son Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.” When the angelic hosts appeared to the shepherds on the hillside they announced that in the city of Bethlehem “a savior has been born to you who is Christ the Lord.” Even the Immaculate Virgin Mary declared in her celebrated canticle, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” The dream of Joseph, the visitation of the shepherds and the song of Mary all remind believers that being a savior, introducing salvation and saving people from sin, was the basic mission of Christ. The very name Jesus means “God saves.”
Mary was certainly without sin from the very first moment of her existence. Even in the womb of St. Anne she was sinless. Yet Mary knew that sinlessness was not her own entitlement; sinlessness had been granted to her by God from her very beginning. Even Mary was saved from sin by the grace of God who anticipated the saving death of Jesus and conferred these saving merits on Mary from her first moments. So every man, woman and child on the face of this earth, even Mary, needs a savior, a redeemer, a deliverer, a rescuer from sin.
St. John the Baptist had been busy for some time awakening the conscience of the Jewish people regarding their need for a savior and a deliverer. St. John’s baptism was a symbolic baptism “of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” John’s public baptismal ceremonies were intended to awaken the consciences of the Jewish population so that they would more keenly appreciate their own sinful ways which only God and his grace could purge and re-direct toward virtue. As the prophet Isaiah speaks in the first reading at this coming Sunday’s Mass, “Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked man his thoughts; let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.”
The frank realization that all sinful men and women need salvation exposes the vast difference between the omnipotent God in heaven and feeble, faltering, frail humanity here on earth. The perfection of God and the imperfection of man can be alarming to believers who ponder this vast chasm between deity and humanity. And this precisely is where the first public act of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, fits into the plan of redemption. Jesus immediately and without hesitation seeks out the riverside baptism of his cousin John to declare and to emphasize that, through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the perfect God understands the plight of imperfect mankind. Through Christ, God lays aside his glory to sympathize, empathize and even identify with man and his erring ways. As St. Paul would later write, “Who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” In Christ, the design for man to become one again with God is complete. Hope has been restored to the human race.
In Christ, God has taken the first step toward Divine/human unity. Now, the challenge is extended to mankind to accept God’s overture. It was sin that first alienated man from God in Eden and it will be the recognition of and repentance from sin that will re-establish the oneness of God with man. Sadly, mankind’s conscience has so often grown dull with sin that the generous offer from God for renewed unity is not even perceived. Sometimes, God’s offer is not heeded because a man’s sins humiliate him before God and, like Adam and Eve, men and women hide from God. This is why humankind must come to realize that, in spite of any sinful ways, men and women already have access to God through Christ. Christ became one with man at his Incarnation; Christ publically celebrated that oneness at his baptism; and Christ died for that oneness on Calvary, atoning for the sins of all his brothers and sisters, re-uniting every creature with the heavenly Father. Clearly, in and through Christ, hope has been restored to the human race.