The Baptism of the Lord (Year C)

Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11; Titus 2:11-14;3:2-7; Luke 3:15-16,21-22

THE BAPTISM OF JESUS is the third of three great manifestations or revelations which characterise the Christmas season. Today is a kind of transition. We have come to the end of the Christmas season. Yesterday was “Twelfth Night”, the last of the twelve days of Christmas and now we are entering the first week of the Ordinary Season. (Today is also the First Sunday in Ordinary Time, although it is never celebrated. However, the prayers of its Mass will be said during the week.)

The three great revelations we have been celebrating are:
a. Christmas: when God comes among us with the Good News for the poor, the outcast and the sinner. This is Luke’s version, where Jesus is born in poverty and the first to come to pay him homage are poor and marginalised shepherds.
b. Epiphany: when God comes among us with a message of salvation for everyone, for all the people of the world, and not just for one select group. This is Matthew’s version and the description of the strange visitors from the East.
c. Baptism of Jesus: God is seen as specially present in Jesus and working in him and through him.

Why baptise Jesus?
We might ask ourselves: Why did Jesus need to be baptised? Most of those coming to John the Baptist were repentant sinners. Our baptism, too, is partly to rescue us from the power of sin by being bathed in the redemptive love of Christ.

How does Jesus himself fit into this? We always say that he is like us in all things, except sin. Moreover, John clearly states that he himself is not the Messiah but only the fore-runner, the herald of his coming. He is not even worthy to undo the sandals of the One who is coming. Undoing sandals was something only slaves did. John felt that, in Jesus’ case, he was not even worthy to do that. And yet – Jesus is to be baptised by John.

Two answers
There are two answers we can give to this question:
a. By being baptised in the River Jordan with all those self-proclaimed sinners,
Jesus shows his total solidarity with us. “The Word was made flesh and lived among us,” says John’s gospel. He does not say that the Word was made a human person but that ‘he was made flesh’. In biblical language, ‘flesh’ has all the connotations of our human weaknesses. In becoming a human person, Jesus identified with us not just in our humanity but in our weak human-ness. Jesus had the same feelings and reactions that we have; only he never did sin or do anything wrong. This solidarity was indicated by the criticism of the Pharisees that Jesus spent so much time eating and drinking with sinners and outcasts.

Despite his dignity and rank as Son of God, as Messiah, Jesus never did require any external signs of privilege. Most of the time, he looked just the same as everyone else. And, when he got up in the synagogue of his home town and began to amaze people with his insight, his neighbours could not understand it. They had lived for years with him and had no idea of this side of his person.

b. Secondly, something different is happening here beyond an ordinary baptism. Luke says significantly that Jesus was at prayer when his baptism took place. At all the significant moments in his public life, Luke represents Jesus as praying. It was at this moment that the Spirit of God in the visible form of a dove comes down on Jesus.

A voice, clearly that of the Father, says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.” It is clearly a form of “missioning” for Jesus. We could call it is his ‘Pentecost’ experience. It is a clear endorsement from his Father for the work that Jesus is about to begin. (Another important endorsement will come at the Transfiguration.)

So, through his baptism, Jesus is being officially commissioned to begin his public work of teaching, healing and liberating enslaved souls up to the climactic moment of his passion, death and resurrection.

What is Jesus’ mission?
And what is that work that Jesus is to accomplish through his teaching, preaching and healing? That is described in the First Reading from Isaiah and the Second Reading from the Letter to Titus.

Isaiah promises that valleys will be filled and mountains and hills made low as all obstacles will be removed and the glory of God will be revealed and made accessible to all. The Lord is coming in the person of Jesus: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom and gently lead the mother sheep.” He is the Bread of Life and the Good Shepherd.

In the Second Reading the Lord comes to bring salvation and wholeness to all and to help us leave behind all “worldly passions”, all those appetites and longings which are ultimately destructive and harmful to our proper destiny. And our baptism is linked with that of Jesus:
“For when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared,
he saved us,
not because of any works of righteousness that we had done,
but according to his mercy
through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”

The Word became flesh so that we could be liberated from the sinful inclinations of the flesh.

His baptism also for us
At his baptism, that Spirit came down on Jesus. It was not for him alone but so that he might bring “true justice” to all. A just society is one where everyone has what they need to have, where their dignity is respected and affirmed and where people live in right relationships with each other.

So, later in his gospel Matthew applies the words of the prophet Isaiah to Jesus:

He will not argue or shout,
or make loud speeches in the streets.
He will not break off a bent reed,
Or put out a flickering lamp.
He will persist until he causes justice to triumph,
And in him all peoples will put their hope (Matthew 12:19-20a).

Here expressed in truly poetic images is a picture of the compassionate Jesus who welcomed sinners and sat down to eat with them; the Good Shepherd who left the ninety-nine “good” ones to go and find just one which had gone astray to bring it back.

Continuing to quote from Isaiah, Matthew applies these words explicitly to Jesus:

Faithfully he brings true justice;
he will neither waver, nor be crushed
until true justice is established on earth (Matthew 12:20b-21.

Jesus, in spite of hostility, rejection and efforts to destroy him, will persevere to the end. In fact, it will be in his apparent destruction, his degrading death as a public criminal that he will galvanise millions to follow him for centuries to come. Jesus’ work is above all to liberate us and set us free. For all of this, Jesus was baptised and commissioned by his Father.

Reflecting on our own baptism
Today is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on our own baptism. It is not something which happened a long time and which “made” us Catholics. It is not just a ceremony lasting a few minutes which produces magical effects; it is the beginning of a lifelong journey. It is the beginning of a process of growing into the Body of Christ as its members.

Our baptism is essentially a community experience; it is not just a private or a family event although in the way it was “celebrated” it may have looked like that. It involves active participation in the life of the Church and not just passive membership.
Perhaps we could paraphrase the words of John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address: “Ask not what the Church can do for you but what you can do for the Church.”

Each one of us is called to be a living witness to the Gospel: to be the salt of the earth, a city on a hill, a lamp radiating light for all. Our baptism is a never-ending call to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Every word of Isaiah can also be applied to each one of us who has been baptised. So let us today renew our faith in and our commitment to follow Jesus. Let us re-affirm our readiness to carry on his work.

For it is a sobering fact that without our co-operation, much of God’s work will never get done.

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