Lectionary commentary: Baptism of Jesus Christ

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As we end the period after Epiphany and return to the green of ordered time, here are Fr. Joseph's thoughts on the readings for the Mass of the Baptism of Our Lord.



READINGS

A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 42:1-4. 6-7

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 29:1-4. 9-10. R/. v. 11

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, 10:34-38

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 3:13-17



The God who speaks...

In the glorious myth of creation that opens the pages of the Hebrew Bible, and thus, of course, of our Christian Scriptures, the first action of God is this:

And God said …

Genesis 1:3

God speaks and what follows is a long story, full of God’s words, spoken from the heavens, spoken through the prophets and, in these last days … spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:2). That is why the greatest commandment in the Hebrew Bible is brief and to the point:

Shema, Isra’el!
Listen, Isra’el!

Deuteronomy 5:1

Since that Son is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Hebrews 1:3), the voice from the clouds of heaven speaks the greatest of all commandments imposed upon those who follow the man from Nazareth:

ἀκούετε αὐτοῦ
Listen to him!

Matthew 17:5

So when we attempt to unravel the meaning of the Jesus who was immersed by John the Baptist in the waters of the Jordan River, we must attend to the words. To understand the meaning of that baptism is to understand the meaning of all subsequent baptisms.


John the Baptiser

Though scholars have searched high and low to discover the origins of the baptism John offered when people flocked to Jordan’s banks, none has been found. The symbolic meaning of washing as a cleaning from sin is expressed in various sentences in the Hebrew Bible:

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Psalm 51:7

Isaiah speaks of a cleansing of the people when exile will be ended:

In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honour of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst

Isaiah 4:2-4

Ezekiel longed for a renewed life of faith that would come when the Lord would lead the people back to the Holy City:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

Ezekiel 36:25-26

Jeremiah, the prophet who spoke to Jerusalem’s people, longed for a cleansing:

O Jerusalem,
wash your heart from evil,
that you may be saved.

Jeremiah 4:14

Yet, while rich in suggestion, these prophetical longings do not explain the baptism of John. It is an original symbol, a symbol of the message that accompanied the immersion into the depths of the Jordan’s waters. In the vision of St. Matthew, to be baptised was and is to signal commitment to a radical demand:

Repent,

in the sure and certain conviction that,

the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

As it is in the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, so it is at the end. To make disciples of all nations, it is necessary to baptise them into the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). To be baptised is to accept “all that I have commanded” and to live in the certainty that.

I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Matthew 28:18-20

The gospel of John the Baptist and the gospel of Jesus are the same. John comes with the authority of hope, and with the authority of prophetical vision. The baptism of Jesus is an

ordination to mission, a vocational demand, and a parable as to what discipleship is all about. John’s baptism is, as are all baptisms, a radical transformation, an enlistment to serve the demands of the kingdom of heaven, and not any other kingdom. Matthew provides a summary of what John’s baptism is about and what all baptisms involve:

A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the slave to be like his master.

Matthew 10:24-25

Of course, as we know with the greatest clarity, that the meaning of that to which we are called, can be obscured. In chains in Herod’s fortress, it is not difficult to lose the certainty of the call and to question whether the kingdom is truly at hand. Hence the messengers sent by John.


Jesus and John

When the messengers from John went away Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John. The people who looked to John were not the rich and powerful; they did not dress in the latest finery, nor did they live in the palaces of kings. What people went out to see was a prophet, indeed, more than a prophet. John was God’s angel, God’s angelos, God’s messenger, of whom it has been written,

Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.

Matthew 11:10

The rather free quotation from Isaiah 40:3,

The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight,

expresses that John is the pivotal prophet, the one who comes from the past to announce a new future. He announces a new age. John is the messenger of transformation. The times they are a-changing. The days of violence, of disobedience to God’s will, the days when power triumphed over faith—these days are numbered. These days must give way to the inauguration of a new time. The days of the kingdom of heaven are come. What John does is to prepare for the imminent arrival of Immanuel. The days of promise are fulfilled. The days of God-with-Us are about to dawn. That is why Jesus can assert with utter truth (Amen, I say to you …) that,

among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.

Matthew 11:11

But, as Jesus continues,

The one who is least in the kingdom of heaven
is greater than he.

Matthew 11:11

Why is this so?


Greater than...

There are a number of comparisons that run throughout Matthew’s Gospel that explain why the least one in the new age of Jesus is greater that the greatest in the age of preparation. Consider the following comparisons:

I tell you, something greater than the Temple is here.

Matthew 12:6
The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

Matthew 12:41

The queen of the South will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.

Matthew 12:42

You blind
fools! For which is greater, the gold or the Temple that has made the gold sacred.

Matthew 23:17

You blind men!
For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?

Matthew 23:19

The point of the comparison in each case is Jesus. Jesus, God-with-Us, is new under the sun. Into our world has come one greater than all the prophets. Jesus is greater than the Temple for his Presence is not confined to a building. Immanuel’s community is the Holy of Holies. The presence of God-with-Us, is an eternal presence that is forever with and in those baptised into the presence of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All peoples

must realise that their home is to be with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All humanity must be brought to know that its destiny is to live in the Presence, to be with and in Immanuel. As St. Paul says, again and again, people are baptised to be in Christ. Long before our Gospels were written Paul reminded Christians in Rome of who they were:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Romans 6:3-4

To recognise Christians, to know into whom Christians are baptised, look no further than the evidence presented by Jesus to John as he lay in prison chains:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

Matthew 11:4-6

The evidence that assures John that Jesus is indeed the Christ is the same evidence that will convince the world that Christians are what they claim to be:

A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

Matthew 7:18-20

Jonah preached to the hated Assyrians in their capital city of Nineveh. He converted king and country. Christians are mandated to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). Christians are baptised in order to proclaim the gospel of God, to gospel the world with God’s embrace.

Solomon became legendary for his wisdom, even impressing the Queen of Sheba. But Christians carry in their missionary purse a wisdom more profound:

teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.

Matthew 28:20

Christians do not enrich the world with gold and silver, such as adorned the Temple. Rather they carry within themselves the Presence that made the Temple holy. Their invitation is to leave the injustices of the world and to come in from the cold.

John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ. Notice the words. Not simply “Christ”. John had heard, not only what Jesus was doing, but that these works were being interpreted as “the deeds of THE Christ”.

It is the reply that Jesus gives to the disciples of John that is truly astonishing. Jesus does not say who he is. He points to what he does. He appeals to what people hear about him and who see for themselves:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

Matthew 11:4-6

Thus, in God’s good time, when Christians are asked who they are, they must point to what they do in order to reveal who they are.



A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 42:1-4. 6-7

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him
;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.
“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness”.

The word of the Lord.

To get to grips with Chapter 40 to Chapter 55 of Isaiah a little history is necessary. The Babylonian Empire was supreme in the Middle East and little Israel was under its heel. Many of its people were in exile by the waters of Babylon, that is to say,

between the Tigris and Euphrates, the great rivers that flow through the land we know as Iraq. But Babylon is about to fall to the might of the Medes and the Persians. Cyrus II’s military genius led his armies to the east and the west so that by the 540s B.C. his empire stretched from India to Greece. He captured the city of Babylon in 539 B.C. In the midst of momentous military events and the shifting of power, this part of the Book of Isaiah begins to imagine a new future, and especially a coming home for scattered exiles. Faith in God’s mercy and forgiveness imagine a new king and a new time of justice, God’s justice. The vision extends to embrace a new king, a new servant of God, who would rule with such justice that Israel will become a light to the nations, and, as today’s reading dreams, such times will come as,

to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring our prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

The rôle of the servant-king is to restore the people to their responsibilities as the light that will bring the nations into God’s righteousness.

The servant-king will not turn to violence: a bruised reed he shall not break. He will quench the merest flicker of hope. Everything will be done to serve justice as only God’s justice will serve.

The Lord will take the people by the hand and lead them as a light to the nations, opening the eyes of the blind, and opening the dungeons of darkness.

It is a glorious hope and not one that was achieved.by Israel’s fidelity. Our reading demands that we see in the baptism of Jesus the beginning of God’s determination to see divine intentions fulfilled. The kingdom of heaven is about to be launched and

God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Later in Isaiah we will learn that the Messiah-servant-king will be a suffering servant.



Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 29:1-4. 9-10. R/. v. 11

R/. May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Ascribe to the
Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength
Ascribe to the
Lord the glory due his name.
worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness. R/.

The voice of
the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over many waters.
The voice of
the Lord is powerful; the
voice of
the Lord is full of majesty. R/.

The voice of the Lord thunders
and in his Temple all cry, “Glory!”
the Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.

This is an old psalm. It employs an imagery that goes back to Israel’s earliest song writers, such as composed Miriam’s song:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.


Exodus 15:20-21

It echoes, too, the Song of Deborah and Barak (Judges 5:2-31). If there be heavenly beings (gods or angels?), then let them sing in praise of the Lord’s strength, acknowledging the glory of God on high. Let the whole chorus of heaven sing God’s praises.

The voices raised in prayer in the Temple are urged to sing the glory of the God whose power and splendour echo throughout the universe.

The baptism of Jesus by John is a very private, quiet affair. It is an event of intimate communication. But the Responsorial Psalm wants all creation to sing in praise, recognising that what is done by the waters of Jordan is done by God.


A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, 10:34-38

So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ ( he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

The word of the Lord.

In order to follow Jesus the Jew was it necessary to become a Jew? Did men have to be circumcised? Did Sabbaths have to be observed? Did the kitchen have to submit to a new regime? Were all these identity markers necessary in order to be recognised as a true disciple of Jesus the Jew?

That was the great question that faced the very first proclaimers of the gospel of God given to them by Jesus the Jew from Nazareth. That is the matter that Peter had to face as he lodged in the house of Simon the tanner - a good Jew with a good Jewish name, the same name as Simon who was called Peter. But the peace was disturbed when messengers came from Cornelius the centurion of the Italian Cohort. The messengers, two slaves and a soldier, were well received. But “the heavens” had to be opened and a visual aid of creepy-crawlies had to be displayed in order to teach Peter God’s truth. He had to have three lessons before the penny began to drop,. Even so, the lesson left him still “perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean”. Even when he got to the house of Cornelius, he addressed the good man and the many people assembled in his house with words explaining his dilemma:

You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me?

Acts 10:28-29

Cornelius tells his side of the story and Peter offers a rambling homily. The opening few words would have been enough:

So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him”.

Acts 10:34-35

Peter repeats the fundamentals of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and (an impatient?) Holy Spirit intervenes:

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God.

Acts 10:44-46

Luke was writing long after the matter was settled but he offers a far more iodine account that the facts of history reveal. The admission of non-Jews to the communities of Jesus was hard fought. There are always people who prefer the comforts of the past rather than face the challenges of the future. The past may be ours but the future belongs to God.



A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptised by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptised, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and
behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.

The Gospel of the Lord.

Baptism is an adult affair. Even Jesus had to wait for the time. Even Jesus had to be a carpenter’s son and wait for that other true sonship to be acknowledged. Even Jesus had to wait for God’s good time. Only then, at a right and proper time could be travel from Galilee to Jordan, to John, to be baptised by him. All righteousness had to be fulfilled, that is, it had to be at the precise moment God intended that his will to be done. What is righteous about this baptism is that it is a commencement of the fulfilling of God’s saving activity. John and Jesus together assent to the programme of salvation. It is fitting, it is in accord with the divine will of God, that Immanuel begin to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

The heavens opened to him as he went up out of the water. He sees the Holy Spirit of God descending like a dove. Every detail speaks of God’s intense participation in baptism.

the heavens opened

The phrase speaks of God:

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence.

Isaiah 64:1-2

The opening of the heavens signal a divine revelation, an announcement of divine intention.

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.

Ezekiel 1:1

The “opening of the heavens” announces the call of Ezekiel. In that moment the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest and the hand of the Lord was upon him.

As Stephen was about to be stoned he was filled with the Holy Spirit and he saw into the heavens and saw the glory of God. He declared to the enraged crowd:

Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.

Acts 7:56

God does not have a right hand. Nor does the Risen Lord Jesus stand beside a heavenly throne. Faith is lived in metaphors. Human words, human imagination, poets and peasants, all of us strive to speak to the God who speaks silently. The difficulty is to translate what we know to be true into words that sing to our hearts and enlighten our minds.

Peter, worrying whether non-Jews must be allowed to enter the Christian fold, turns to prayer and has a vision:

Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common”.

Acts 10:9-15

The “opening of the heavens” is a way of saying “God revealed”, “God spoke”, or God’s will was made known”. Often such knowledge is revealed when people are praying.


The Spirit

In Matthew’s account, only Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending. Neither John who has baptised him nor the crowds are so privileged. But, of course, Matthew’s readers and hearers invited to hear the words of God and to understand.

Our reading today from Isaiah may provide a clue to Matthew’s account of what happened:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him
;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Just as the servant in the Isaiah text is anointed with the Spirit so is Jesus. Matthew uses the quotation from Isaiah in 12:17-21.


The dove

All four Gospels mention the dove in relation to the descent of the Spirit. Where this image comes from is unclear. Perhaps the imagination of a poet is the best suggestion. Doves are mentioned 29 times in the Bible (ESV translation). Six of these are in the Song of Songs, often as the lady imagines her lover calling to her:

I slept, but my heart was awake.
A sound! My beloved is knocking.
“Open to me, my sister, my love,
my dove, my perfect one,
for my head is wet with dew,
my locks with the drops of the night.”
I had put off my garment
;
how could I put it on?

Song of Songs 5:2-3

Psalm 55:6 has a line that is echoed in many a hymn and song:

Oh, for the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.

We must understand that our Bible’s words are God’s words but these words are, first and foremost, human words. To read the Bible is to endeavour to discover how our human words are translated into God’s words. It is always essential to open our Bible with a prayer.


A voice from heaven

A second “Behold!” underlines the emphasis Matthew wants to put on the sentence that comes from God. God identifies the one on whom the Spirit of God has descended. He is none other than the Beloved Son. Again, a close reading of the words from Isaiah given us today will clarify. The identity of Jesus emerges from the baptism in the details that emerge from the opening to him (and to readers and hearers) of the heavens above:

He is the servant,
My chosen one,
The One in whom the Lord God delights.

He is,

A bruised reed, (that will not break)
A faintly burning wick (that will not be quenched).

A determined One,

He will faithfully bring forth (God’s) justice.
He will not grow faint.
He will not be discouraged
till he has established (God’s) justice in the earth.

The voice from heaven will be heard again in Matthew’s Gospel 17:5:

He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.


LISTEN TO HIM!


Joseph O’Hanlon