The Baptism of the Lord (C)
Sunday, January 13, 2013
In the New Testament, John the Baptist preached a “baptism with water“, not of forgiveness but of penance or repentance for the remission of sins (Luke 3:3), and declared himself a forerunner to one who would baptize ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ (Luke 3:16). In so doing he was preparing the way for Jesus. Jesus came to the Jordan River where he was baptized by John. The baptismal scene includes the Heavens opening, a dove-like descent of the Holy Spirit, and a voice from Heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”
The Baptism of Jesus and
his manifestation as the Son of God
1. Opening prayer
Lord, our God and our Father, grant us to know the mystery of the baptism of your Son. Grant that we may understand it as the Evangelist, Luke, understood it; as the early Christians understood it. Father, grant that we may contemplate the mystery of Jesus’ identity as you revealed it at his baptism in the waters of the Jordan and who is present in our baptism.
Lord Jesus, by listening to your word, teach us what it means to be children in You and with You. You are the true Christ because you teach us to be children of God as you are. Grant us a deep awareness of the action of the Spirit who invites us to listen to the word with docility and attention.
Holy Spirit we ask you to calm our anxieties and fears so that we may become more free, simple and meek in listening to the voice of God who reveals himself in the word of Jesus Christ, our brother and redeemer. Amen!
a) A key to the reading:
The account of the baptism of Jesus, presented to us in this Sunday’s liturgy, invites us to meditate on it and touches on a crucial question concerning our faith: Who is Jesus? At the time of Jesus and throughout history, this question has been answered in infinite ways and these indicate the attempt of human beings and believers to understand better the mystery of the person of Jesus. However, in this meditative exercise of ours, we wish to draw deeply from the more genuine and reliable source, the word of God. In describing the scene of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, Luke is not interested in telling us the historical and concrete details of this event, but rather invites us who read the Gospel in this liturgical year, to consider the main elements that enable us to grasp the identity of Jesus.
b) A division of the text to help us with the reading:
This passage from Luke contains two declarations on the identity of Jesus, namely the declaration of John (3:15-16) and that of God himself (3:21-22).
- The first declaration is provoked by the people’s reaction to the preaching and baptism of conversion of John: might he not be the Messiah? (3:15). John replies that there is a substantial difference between his baptism by water and Jesus’ baptism administered in the «Holy Spirit and fire» (3:16).
- The second declaration comes from heaven and is made during Jesus’ baptism. In the background, there are the baptised from among whom the figure of Jesus comes forward to be baptised (3:21). The focal point of the scene is not the baptism, but the events surrounding it: the heavens open, the Spirit descends on him and a voice is heard proclaiming Jesus’ identity (3:22).
c) The text:
15 As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”
3. A moment of prayerful silence
In the silence, try to bring to life in your heart the Gospel scene just read. Try to assimilate it and make the words your own, thus identifying your thoughts with the content or meaning of the words.
4. A few questions
to help us in our meditation and prayer.
a) What effect did the “voice of God” declaring Jesus “the” only, beloved Son of God, have on you?
b) Is this truth a shared and conscious conviction for you?
c) Has the baptism of Jesus convinced you that God is not distant, closed in his transcendence and indifferent to humanity’s need of salvation?
d) Does it not surprise you that Jesus goes down into the water of the Jordan to receive the baptism of penance, becoming one with sinners, he who is sinless?
e) Jesus is no sinner, but he does not refuse to become one with sinful humanity. Are you convinced that salvation begins with the law of solidarity?
f) You, who have been baptised in the name of Christ, «in the Holy Spirit and fire», are you aware that you have been called by God to experience God’s solidarity with your personal history, so that you may no longer identify with sin that isolates and divides, but with love that unites?
5. A key to the reading
for those who wish to deepen their understanding.
I. The context of the Jesus’ baptism
After the childhood accounts and in preparation for the public activities of Jesus, Luke tells us of John the Baptist’s activities, the baptism and temptations of Jesus. These introduce Jesus’ own activities and give them meaning. The Evangelist includes in one unique and complete frame all the activities of John: from the beginning of his preaching on the banks of the Jordan (3:3-18) to his capture by Herod Antipas (3:19-20). When Jesus appears on the scene in 3:21 to be baptised, John is no longer mentioned. Through this silence, Luke makes explicit his reading of salvation history: John is the last prophetic voice of the promise of the Old Testament. Now the centre of history is Jesus, and it is he who begins the time of salvation, which is extended into the time of the Church.
A not insignificant element in the understanding of the events previous to those of John the Baptist and of Jesus is the geographical and political description of Palestine in the thirties. The Evangelist wants to present a historical dimension and a theological meaning to the Jesus event. He wants to say that it is not worldly political power (represented by Tiberius Caesar) nor religious power (represented by the high priests) that gives value or meaning to human events; but rather it is “the word of God that rests upon John, son of Zachary, in the desert” (Lk 1:2). For Luke, the new or developed aspect of the history inaugurated by Jesus, lies in this context or political situation of profane and religious dominance and power. In previous times, in the accounts of the prophets, the word of God was addressed to a particular historical-political situation, but in John’s message there is an urgency: God comes in the person of Jesus. Thus the word of God calls John the Baptist from the desert to send him to the people of Israel. The task of this last prophet of the Old Testament is to prepare for the coming of the Lord among his people (Lk 1:16-17.76). He accomplishes this task by preparing all to receive God’s forgiveness through the baptism of conversion (Jer 3:34; Ez 36:25), which means a change in the way of seeing one’s relationship with God. Changing one’s life means practising fraternity and justice according to the teaching of the prophets (Lk 3:10-14). As opposed to religious or social conformism, the reader of Luke’s Gospel is invited to be open to the person of Jesus, the saving Messiah. Moreover, Luke emphasises that the prophet John did not pretend to be the rival of Jesus. On the contrary, the prophet of the Jordan saw himself as entirely subordinate to the person of Jesus: «the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie» (3:16). Again, Jesus is stronger because he gives the Spirit.
John’s life comes to a violent end in the manner of the classical prophets. The authenticity of a prophet is measured by his freedom in facing political power. Indeed, he courageously denounces the evil actions of Herod towards his people. There are two reactions to the call of the prophet: the people and sinners become converted, whereas the powerful react with repressive violence. John ends his days in prison. Through this tragic event, John anticipates the fate of Jesus who is rejected and killed, but who becomes the point of reference for all those persecuted by repressive power.
Finally, the Jordan is the physical setting of John’s preaching. Luke means to establish a close tie between this river and the Baptist: after his baptism, Jesus will never go to the Jordan again and John will never cross into Galilee and Judea, because these are places reserved for the activities of Jesus.
II. A commentary on the text
1. The Baptist’s words concerning Jesus (Lk 3:15-16)
In the first scene of the Gospel passage of today’s liturgy, John prophetically affirms that there is one “who is mightier” than he who is to come. This is the answer of the prophet of the Jordan to the opinion of the crowd that he might be the Christ. The crowds here are called the people in expectation. For Luke, Israel is considered a people open and prepared to receive the messianic salvation (at least during the time before the crucifixion). John’s words draw on the images of the Old Testament and act to exalt the mysterious person whose imminent coming he announces: «he who is mightier than I is coming» (3:16).
a) the figure of “the mightier”
The Baptist begins to paint the figure of Christ with the adjective “mighty” already used by Isaiah of the king-Messiah: «mighty, powerful like God» (9:5) and a term used in the Old Testament to signify an attribute of the Creator, considered sovereign of the universe and of history: «Yahweh is king, robed in majesty, Yahweh is robed in power, he wears it like a belt» (Ps 93:1). The expression “one is coming” echoes a title of messianic flavour found in Psalm 118, a processional hymn sung during the feast of the Tabernacles: «Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord». Luke applies this hymn to Jesus when he enters Jerusalem. The famous messianic proclamation in the book of the prophet Zachariah bears the same message: «See now, your king comes to you…» (9:9).
b) A humble gesture: «the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie»
This is another way the Evangelist describes the figure of Christ and has a typically oriental flavour: «to untie the thong of the sandals». This is the task of a slave. The Baptist sees himself as a servant of the Messiah who is to come, moreover he feels humble and unworthy:«the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie».
Then he presents the baptism that the proclaimed person will perform: «he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire». In Psalm 104:3 the Spirit of God is defined as the principle that creates and regenerates all being: «Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth». The fire, however, is par excellence the symbol of divinity: it brings heat and enkindles, animates and destroys, it is the source of warmth and death.
2. The words from heaven concerning Jesus (Lk 3:1-22)
In the second scene we have a new profile or revelation of Christ. This time, it is God himself, and not John, who paints the figure of Christ with solemn words: «You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased». This introduction and definition of Christ is supported by a real and particular heavenly choreography (the heavens open… the Spirit descends in the form of a dove… the voice from heaven) to show the divine quality of the words pronounced on the person of Jesus.
a) The dove is the symbol of the Spirit of God who possessed the prophets, but who now is infused in his fullness on the Messiah foretold by Isaiah: “On him the Spirit of Yahweh rests” (11:2). The symbol of the dove shows that with the coming of Jesus the perfect presence of God takes place who manifests himself in the pouring out fo his Spirit. It is this fullness of the Holy Spirit that consecrates Christ for his saving mission and for the task of revealing to people the definitive word of the Father. It is certain that the sign of the dove shows the reader of the passage concerning the baptism that God is about to meet with humanity. This meeting is verified in the person of Jesus. The Baptist presented Jesus as the Messiah – who in the OT remains simply a man, even though perfect – and now God defines Jesus as the “beloved” Son. This title shows the supreme presence of God, which goes beyond that experienced in the cult or any other aspect of life in Israel.
b) The divine voice is another sign accompanying the revelation of Jesus in the waters of the Jordan. The voice recalls two texts of the Old Testament. The first is a messianic hymn that cites some words of God addressed to his king-Messiah: “You are my son, this day I have begotten you” (Ps 2:7). In the OT both the figure of the king and the Messiah were considered as adoptive sons of God. Jesus, however, is the beloved son, synonymous with the only son. The second text that throws light on the words pronounced by the voice from heaven is a passage taken from the Hymns of the servant of the Lord and that the liturgy of the word of this Sunday gives us for the first reading: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights” (Is 42: 1). Two figures presented by Isaiah converge in Jesus: the hope of the Messiah-king and the figure of the suffering Messiah. It would not be improper to say that the scene of the baptism as presented by Luke is a true catechesis on the mystery of the person of Jesus, Messiah, king, servant, prophet, Son of God.
c) Again, from the voice from heaven we can see the transcendent, divine, unique quality of Jesus. This belonging of Jesus to the world of God will become visible, palpable, experienced in his humanity, in his belonging in the midst of people, in his wandering along the roads of Palestine.
Thus the Word of God this Sunday, through the account of Jesus’ baptism, is meant to introduce Jesus to the world in a solemn way. This presentation will be complete only on the cross and in the resurrection. Indeed, on the cross, two faces of Christ are presented, the human-saving face through his death on the cross for our redemption, and the divine face in the profession of faith of the centurion: “Indeed, this is the Son of God!”. The word of God on this day of the Lord, invites us to contemplate and adore the face of Christ that St. Augustine presented in one of his reflections: “In that face we can also see our features, those of the adoptive son revealed in our baptism”.
6. Psalm 42
When we experience the silence of God in our life, let us not grow discouraged, but let us always cultivate our thirst for Him together with all our brothers and sisters. Let us walk on the roads of the Kingdom, sure to find his presence in Christ Jesus.
Seeking the face of God
As a hart longs for flowing streams,
so longs my soul for thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while men say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help
and my God.
7. Closing prayer
Lord God, when your Son Jesus was being baptised by John the Baptist in the Jordan he prayed. Your divine voice heard his prayer that opened the heavens. The Holy Spirit too revealed his presence under the form of a dove. Listen to our prayer! We implore you to sustain us with your grace so that we may behave truly as children of the light. Grant us the strength to abandon the habits of the old man so that we may be constantly renewed in the Spirit, clothed and imbued by the thoughts and feelings of Christ.
Lord Jesus, you willed to be baptised by John the Baptist with the baptism of penance. We turn the eyes of our heart to you so that we may learn to pray as you prayed to the Father at your baptism, with filial trust and complete faithfulness to his will. Amen!