The Baptism of the Lord (Year A)

Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-4,6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17

Today brings to an end our Christmas celebrations. We see the third and last of the three great manifestations by which were made known to us that our God had come among us in a very special way. As mentioned in a recent commentary, the sign that Jesus gave in Cana is also a special manifestation of God’s presence in Jesus, and may be considered a fourth manifestation.

Of the three, the first of these manifestations was through the story of the birth of Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem. The first people privileged to experience this manifestation were the shepherds, representing the poor, the sinful, and the social outcasts on whom Luke’s Gospel is especially focused. 

The second manifestation, the Epiphany, celebrated this past week, reflects Matthew’s emphasis that Jesus was born not only for his own people, but for people of every country and every race everywhere.

This third manifestation of God’s presence among us through Jesus, depicted in today’s Gospel, is found in all four gospels. While the first two manifestations are linked with the birth of Jesus, this one comes at a much later date, at the moment when Jesus is about to begin his public life.

Why baptise Jesus?
We might very well wonder, like John the Baptist did, why Jesus needed to be baptised. John said to Jesus:

It is I who need baptism from you, and yet you come to me!

All those others being baptised in the Jordan by John were doing so as a sign of repentance for their sins, and as an expression of their desire to turn around their lives. How could Jesus, the Son of God, be part of this?

The first answer to this question is that Jesus, in so doing, was expressing his total solidarity with the human race, of which he was a member. He identified with them, not as a sinner but as a fellow human being. The expression of that solidarity is a much higher priority for him than any social status he might lose by being seen in the close company of confessed sinners. It was a risk he would constantly take because the needs of the sinner were more important to him than his reputation with the self-righteous. It will have its final dramatic expression as Jesus dies on a cross, executed with, and like, two convicted criminals. For Jesus, there was never such a thing as ‘face’, i.e. being valued purely on external appearance.

A ‘missioning’ experience
However, in order to understand what is happening at the River Jordan, we have to go far beyond seeing Jesus’ baptism as a matter of dealing with sinfulness. What is being really emphasised here is the positive element of Jesus being totally accepted and confirmed by his Father. Jesus, as he stands there in the River Jordan, is being ‘missioned’ by his Father for the work he is just about to begin. He is here getting the total endorsement of his Father for that work. 

As he steps out of the water, the heavens open and the Spirit of God comes down on Jesus to fill him with all God’s fullness.

This is my Son, the Beloved [Greek, agapetos, the object of God’s agape, his outpouring love]; in him I am deeply pleased.

This, we might say, is Jesus’ Pentecost experience. It is what the baptism in the Jordan is really about. And it is something that only those with eyes of faith can see. We might also add that this is what our Baptism is really about.

Baptism and anointing
In the Second Reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter in his sermon to Cornelius, the first Gentile to be baptised by the Apostles, says of Jesus that “God had anointed him with the Holy Spirit and power”. 

In the case of Jesus’ baptism by John, the anointing is by water. The anointing of Jesus by God, of which Peter speaks, implies that Jesus is being made King and Lord, and Kings were typically anointed with oil. The title ‘Christ’ [Greek, Christos] which we give him, means ‘The Anointed One’, and corresponds to the Hebrew word we write as Messiah. Finally, as we said earlier, this scene is also a ‘missioning’ ceremony for Jesus as he embarks on his public life.

‘My servant’
All this is beautifully described in the passage from Isaiah which is the First Reading for today’s feast. The opening words echo Matthew’s description of the baptism scene:

My servant in whom my soul delights…I have endowed him with my spirit.

The mission that will be Jesus’ is then spelt out in some beautiful phrases over which we could reflect with great profit: 

  • He does not cry out or shout aloud.
  • He does not break the crushed reed, nor quench the wavering flame.
  • He brings true justice…nor will he be crushed until true justice is established on earth…
  • I have called you to serve the cause of right…
  • I have appointed you as covenant of the people and light of the nations: to open the eyes of the blind; to free captives from prison; and those who live in darkness from the dungeon.

Those final phrases will be quoted by Jesus himself as the proclamation of his mission in the synagogue of his home town, Nazareth (Luke 4:18-10).

All of this is contained in this simple but majestic scene with John the Baptist in the River Jordan. It is, as was said, a great manifestation of God’s presence among us through the Person of Jesus our King and Lord.

Our own baptism
As a final reflection, it would be useful for us today to reflect on the meaning of our own baptism and how it relates with that of Jesus. 

We often hear a very simplistic description of the effects of the Sacrament of Baptism as “taking away original sin and making us children of God”. Many, especially those baptised as infants, may see it as a one-off ceremony, imposed on them by parents to bind them to a way of life in which they have no further say.

People have even been heard to say, “Oh! I wish I hadn’t been born a Catholic!” After honest reflection, some people may choose to renounce their Catholic faith in favour of a way of life which they feel is more meaningful to them. However, if one truly understands the full meaning of our baptism, this is unlikely to happen.

Baptism is not, as is true of all the sacraments, an isolated ritual. It takes place in the context of our whole life. Whether we are baptised as children or as adults, what primarily is happening is that we become incorporated, ’em-bodied’, into the Christian community.

We become – not passively, but actively – members of the Body of Christ. It can never be something imposed on us against our will. That is why, for adults, there is now a long process of initiation leading up to Baptism and, hopefully a further process of community support after the Baptism has taken place. 

It is why adult baptism is now celebrated in the presence of the whole parish community and at the Easter Vigil. ‘Original sin’ is taken away, not so much by some spiritual sleight of hand or by the mumbling of some magic formula. Rather, if one becomes truly incorporated into a living Christian community, the sinful influences that pervade our world become reversed by our exposure to the vision of Jesus and the lived experience of a community based on love, justice and sharing. 

A social event
Baptism does not, and cannot, produce its effects in a social vacuum. That is why the Church will not baptise those who have no likelihood of experiencing Christian community.

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, quoted above 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. 

Let God our Father be able to say of us as he said of Jesus:

This is my Beloved; in this one I am deeply pleased.

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