Baptism of Christ, Paolo Caliari (Veronese),
c. 1580, Palazzo Pitti (Florence)
(About this Image)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Baptism of the Lord
Titus 2:11–14, 3:4–7
January 9, 2022
The first section of today’s second reading from the Letter of Paul to Titus was read two weeks ago at the Christmas masses. (Titus 2:11–14) As we noted then, the Letter to Titus was most likely written for a disciple of St. Paul, Titus the leader of the Church in Crete, by a successor of St. Paul. It was a pastoral letter which meant that it addressed practical issues in the church at the time. It was written in Paul’s name, although everyone knew he was dead, to show that his successors understood that they were applying Paul’s teachings in an authentic manner and should be obeyed. This reflects our situation today in an uncanny manner.
Titus’ audience was predominately Gentile, not born Jews, and they had numerous options for belief and worship. The official religion of Rome worshiped the gods to assure the order and wellbeing of the empire. Failure to do so was considered a crime against the state. This was a virtually universal obligation. Virtually because the Jews were given a dispensation from this. Once Christians were seen as a separate religion, they were also obligated to make sacrifices to the gods of Rome with a penalty of death for atheism if they did not. Once this was done, the individual was free to add anything he or she wanted. The principal philosophical competition for Christianity was Stoicism. In our commentary on the first part of this reading, we briefly examined it and how the author of the letter to Titus answered their concerns.
This was not for everyone, and a popular alternative were the mystery religions. They offered salvation both in guiding a person through the difficulties of earthly life and as a way to successfully enter the afterlife. Although the promises were simple, the mythology and rituals to implement it were often extremely complicated. The most important mystery religion was Mithraicism. It was popular in the military and widespread around the empire. Their worship was conducted in underground temples and included a sacrifice and meal.
The key belief was that the God Mithras killed a sacred bull and shared its life with its devotees. They saw this enacted in the evening sky with consolation “Taurus” the bull. They looked at the stars and thought that the bull was being sacrificed. Therefore, in their sacrifices, a bull was sacrificed. To become a member of this religion, a bull was literally sacrificed above the initiates with the blood covering them.
Although there were thousands of places of worship, we are uncertain about much of their beliefs. There may have been some ethical concepts but most of them would be how to treat other believers. Nonetheless, many Romans would have viewed Christianity as a mystery religion that refused to adapt to the Roman insistence of worship of the state.
The second part of today’s reading compares and contrasts Christian beliefs to mystery religions.
The author first reminds his audience that a religion should help one live morally. The sentence immediately before this section reads:
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, deluded,
slaves to various desires and pleasures,
living in malice and envy,
hateful ourselves and hating one another.
This is the state of humanity without Jesus.
But when the kindness and generous love
of God our savior appeared,
Unlike any mystery religion, the Lord who was first revealed in Judaism seeks human beings out through love. This is a true revelation, that is a person cannot reason him or herself to believe in Jesus; it is a gift which much be accepted. Neither philosophy nor astronomy could provide this knowledge. The challenge the author of the letter to Titus faced as indeed did the authors of the other pastoral letters, Colossians, and Ephesians was how to apply the teachings of Paul to contemporary situations. Therefore, they referenced statements that were pure Paul throughout these letters.
In Romans Paul told us: they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, (Ro 3:24).
not because of any righteous deeds we had done
but because of his mercy.
We cannot earn this by our own actions. Paul urges the Jews not to boast about “being saved” because of obedience to the law, but Gentiles too cannot hide behind any of their own actions as well.
Paul to the Romans:
Then what becomes of boasting?
It is excluded. By what law?
By that of works?
No, but by the law of faith.
For we hold that a person is justified by faith
apart from works prescribed by the law.
he saved us through the bath of rebirth
and renewal by the holy Spirit,
The bath of rebirth is baptism. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Co 6:11).
Ancient peoples were very much aware of the power of signs and symbols. Followers of Mithras believed that in killing the cosmic bull Mithras has attained great power which he could give to his followers. Thus, the God ritually was killing the bull and washing the initiate with its blood. Christians believe that in Jesus’ death and resurrection we join with him and indeed the life of the triune God revealed by him. For them water was a sign of both life and chaos. By being dunked three times in water, the Christian is showing that he is now joined to God, has become a new being, and has triumphed over chaos.
This is New Life and is also clearly a teaching of Paul:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:
everything old has passed away;
see, everything has become new!
(2 Co 5:17–18)
In Titus, we read:
whom he richly poured out on us
through Jesus Christ our savior,
The Jews who read this or Gentiles who took an interest in knowing their Jewish heritage would have remembered the lines from Joel:
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Note that this is for all people (flesh) and is now accomplished in Jesus.
so that we might be justified by his grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
Again, Paul’s theology is clearly present:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith,
we have peace with God
through our Lord Jesus Christ
because you are children,
God has sent the Spirit of his Son
into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father.”
So you are no longer a slave but a child,
and if a child then also an heir, through God.
But most of all:
How much more will those
who receive the abundance of grace
and of the gift of justification
come to reign in life
through the one person Jesus Christ.
The author of the Letter to Titus does not wish to change any of Paul’s teachings. Indeed, he would have understood that he could not as the teachings were revealed. He also knew that his audience may have been asking the universal questions that Paul had so brilliantly answered, but were from a different world with different preconceptions. That the church has considered this letter inspired revelation is the ultimate sign that this attempt succeeded.
We are now participating in a Synod of the Church on where the Church should be and how it should get there. We need to be inspired not only by what the author of the letter to Titus said but how he said it.
Renewal will come from the Spirit given to us at our baptisms. It will reflect the same Good News as spoken by Paul and the other authors of the Scriptures, but need us to use the language and thought forms of today. The Letter to Titus reminds us that it is only by our fidelity to the same Spirit that the Spirit will be truly heard in today’s world.