The Baptism of the Lord (Year B)

Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-11; 1 John 5:1-9; Mark 1:7-11

We come today to the end of the Christmas season. And we have the third great ‘epiphany’ or showing of God in the human person of Jesus. The first ‘epiphany’ was at the birth of the child Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem when he was visited by the shepherds representing the poor, the marginalised and the sinful for whom Jesus had specially come. The second ‘epiphany’ was when the ‘wise men’ came from ‘the East’ to worship the newly born Jesus. They represented all those peoples and nations who were being invited to be numbered among God’s own people through the mediation of Jesus as Lord.

Today we celebrate the third great ‘epiphany’ of the Lord in Jesus Christ. The time is much later. Jesus is now an adult, probably about 30 years of age. We are brought to the banks of the River Jordan somewhere north of Jerusalem where John the Baptist, a cousin of Jesus, is living out in the desert. The desert in some ways is a place where God can be found, although for Jesus it was also a place of trial and temptation. For the early Fathers in the desert it provided both experiences.

John the Baptist leads a very austere life, dressed in the simplest of clothes and sustaining himself on whatever nourishment he can find in the vicinity. He has made a name for himself as a man of God, and large numbers come out to hear and be influenced by him.

Just prior to today’s Gospel passage we are told that John was:

…proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:5)

It is important not to misunderstand the meaning of these words. It would be quite wrong to think that people simply had to come for baptism in the river for all their sins to be wiped out. That would be little more than superstition. The baptism itself was a symbolic act which had to be accompanied by an inner change.

The word for ‘repentance’ here is metanoia in Greek. It implies a radical change in the way we look at the meaning and purpose of life and how we live that life ourselves. It calls for much more than is normally connoted by ‘repentance’ which we normally understand as ‘being sorry’ for something we have done. Metanoia is much more than just feeling sorry. It calls for a total reorganisation of one’s attitudes so that such errant or hurting behaviour would simply disappear from one’s life.

And the ‘forgiveness of sins’ is more than God just wiping out the guilt and the threat of punishment that our sins might involve. In a sense, the damage our sins do often lasts for a very long time and cannot be undone. If I have murdered someone, they stay dead no matter how sorry I feel. If I have destroyed a person’s reputation, it may remain destroyed for ever. Hurtful words spoken cannot be called back.

Then, of course, like Jesus, our baptism brings with it a serious obligation to share our faith with others both by word and example. It involves much more than simply ‘saving our souls’ and ‘leading sinless lives’.

We are called to be living witnesses of the Gospel, to be the salt of the earth, to be a city on a hill, a candle radiating light in the surrounding darkness. We are called, in short, to be united with the others in our Christian community in the building up of God’s Kingdom. Sadly, one wonders how often this is the reality, when one sees so many Catholics acting like total strangers to each other at a Sunday parish Eucharist!

All those words of Isaiah from the first reading and applied to Jesus are to be applied to each one of us as well. Our baptism is not simply some past event recorded in some dusty parish register. It is a living reality which is to be constantly deepened and enriched.

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