Jan 11, 2015: Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (B)

Introduction

The feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a celebration of Jesus as the anointed servant of God.  It brings to a close the liturgical Christmas season, which reveals who God is for us and who we are to be for others, in Christ.  The celebration expands the universality of God’s presence that was proclaimed on the Epiphany and locates it in the messianic mission of Jesus established at his baptism.

This feast might be seen as the summary of the entire liturgical cycle: the one who is born among us is the servant of God who brings to all the nations a universal promise of justice and the fulfillment of hope.

Note: the readings from Cycle A may also be used for this Mass.

1st Reading – Isaiah 55:1-11

Thus says the LORD:
All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, receive grain and eat;
come, without paying and without cost,
drink wine and milk!
Why spend your money for what is not bread,
your wages for what fails to satisfy?
Heed me, and you shall eat well,
you shall delight in rich fare.
Come to me heedfully,
listen, that you may have life.
I will renew with you the everlasting covenant,
the benefits assured to David.
As I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander of nations,
so shall you summon a nation you knew not,
and nations that knew you not shall run to you,
because of the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you.

Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call him while he is near.
Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
and the wicked man his thoughts;
let him turn to the LORD for mercy;
to our God, who is generous in forgiving.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.

For just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
so shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.

Today’s first reading comes from what has been called the Book of Consolation in Isaiah.  This powerful prophetic oracle contains some of the most moving sentiments placed in the mouth of God.

Thus says the LORD: All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!

God is cast in the role of a vendor who offers food and drink at no cost.

The generosity of God is seen in the offer of water, grain, wine, and milk.  While water is essential to all, it is particularly important in the climate of Mediterranean Palestine.  Grain, wine, and milk are staples of the Near Eastern diet and imply abundant harvests and healthy flocks.

The invitation is extended both to those who are able to pay and to those who are not.  All are invited to come to the Lord in order to be refreshed and nourished.

Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy?

What God has to offer is satisfying and will be long lasting compared to all else for which people seem to spend their money.

Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare. Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.

The prophet is referring to more than ordinary food and drink, because the word used for listen is shāma.  This is the same verb that introduces Israel’s most important prayer, which is known by the same word:  Shāma!, or Hear, O Israel!  The word suggests not only hearing but also heeding the words that are heard.

The implication is that the word of God is itself a source of nourishment and rejuvenation.  It is, in fact, the source of life itself.

I will renew with you the everlasting covenant, the benefits assured to David.

The real object of the invitation is God’s announcement of the reestablishment of a covenant bond, hearkening back to his royal covenant with David (see 2 Samuel 7:12-16).

That was a unilateral covenant, a free gift from God with no requirements placed on the human partner.  However, that covenantal privilege did not exempt the kings from observance of the Law, which was associated with the Mosaic covenant.  Though it was instituted as an everlasting covenant, the people broke the bond by their sins.

God is now eager to restore this severed bond.

As I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of nations, so shall you summon a nation you knew not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you, because of the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you.

Just as David’s success proclaimed God’s majesty to the nations, so the people called here will be a witness to God’s mercy and love.  Just as David was the source of blessing, peace, and fullness of life for his own nation, the people called here will be a comparable source of blessing for nations they do not even know.

Seek the LORD while he may be found, call him while he is near.

Israel must turn to God with urgent prayer. Man must seek God,and yet God’s ways are far beyond comprehension. This reading combines the mysterious opposites of divine grace: God is transcendent, yet near enough to help; man is helpless, yet required to act energetically; the ways of God are exalted yet required of man (see also Hosea 14:10; Job 42:1-6; Sirach 43:28-35; Acts 13:10).

Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked man his thoughts;

The prophet describes a pattern of sin, not merely isolated offenses. The people have embarked on a “way” (derek) of life that has taken them away from the God with whom they have entered into covenant. This is nothing short of total betrayal.

The word employed here for sinfulness usually refers to external behavior, but here it is coupled with the word for “thoughts” or “plans” (mahăshābâ). The sinners have not only chosen a course of action opposed to the Laws of God, but they have devised plans contrary to God’s plans.

Let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.

The word for “turn” (shûb), in all its forms, is the twelfth most frequently used verb in the First Testament. It means “to turn from evil and to turn toward the good,” implying that those who have sinned were once in relationship with God but have turned away.

The exhortations to turn back are not merely suggestions — the verb-forms indicate they are imperatives. The people are summoned to worship and repentance.

In the face of this, the prophet assures them God will still be compassionate (rāham) toward them. He can promise this because he firmly believes that God does not merely forgive once. Rather, God is gracious in forgiving, pardoning sinners again and again.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.

The difference between the thoughts and plans of God and those of the wicked are next compared with the vast expanse between the heavens and the earth. The comparison is ludicrous, for there is no comparison.  The difference between the disposition of sinful men and the disposition of God is incalculable.

For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.

Isaiah provides a glimpse of what ecologists today call the hydrologic cycle — continuous movement of water between the earth and the atmosphere.  His knowledge of this cycle comes from observing nature itself, the primary source of wisdom.  Rain and snow originate in the heavens; they water the earth, making it fertile and then they return to the heavens, having accomplished their purpose.

This observation lays bare several characteristics of the integrity of creation.  The first is the interrelationship that exists between the various spheres.  Without water, the earth would not be fertile; without the fruits of the earth, human beings would not have food to eat.  A second characteristic, not expressed but presumed, is the consistency of the workings of the natural world.  There an order persists that is reliable, an order we can trust.  Finally, contrary to anthropocentric arrogance, it is clear that humans are totally dependent on the fertility of the natural world and the laws that govern it.  These three characteristics constitute the tenor of the metaphor: the features that belong to the natural world apply to word of God.

Speaking through the prophet, God declares: So it is with my word!  A cause-and-effect relationship exists between the word of God and the outcome it accomplishes; the word of God is consistent and reliable, and humans are totally dependent on it.  We are assured that we can be as confident of this as we can be of the working of the natural world.  Just as nature produces miracles upon which we can rely and because of which we can survive, so the word of God will effect miracles upon which we can rely and because of which we can live.

2nd Reading – 1 John 5:1-9

Beloved:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God,
and everyone who loves the Father
loves also the one begotten by him.
In this way we know that we love the children of God
when we love God and obey his commandments.
For the love of God is this,
that we keep his commandments.
And his commandments are not burdensome,
for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
Who indeed is the victor over the world
but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ,
not by water alone, but by water and blood.
The Spirit is the one who testifies,
and the Spirit is truth.
So there are three that testify,
the Spirit, the water, and the blood,
and the three are of one accord.
If we accept human testimony,
the testimony of God is surely greater.
Now the testimony of God is this,
that he has testified on behalf of his Son.

Today’s second reading is a testimony to trinitarian faith.  It describes God as the one who begets (the Father); it identifies Jesus as the Son of God; and it credits the Spirit as the one who testifies to the triumph of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It also sketches the way believers participate in this trinitarian reality.

Beloved: Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ

This is a simply stated yet foundational christological declaration: Jesus is the Christ.  The word Christ, meaning “anointed one,” has a long history in Jewish thought.  In ancient Israel kings and priests were anointed (2 Samuel 2:4, Exodus 30:30).  Gradually these customs developed into messianic ideas (Isaiah 9:5-6, 61:1), which after the resurrection were attributed by Christians to Jesus.

is begotten by God, and everyone who loves the father loves also the one begotten by him. In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments.

A second theological theme: faith in Jesus makes believers children of God.

A form of the verb “to beget” is used three times: those who believe are “begotten by God”; God the Father is the one who begets; those “begotten by God”  are to be the object of the love of others.  Here faith and love (agápē) are intimately linked.  While it is faith in Christ that brings one into the family of God, once incorporated, one is expected to love God and all those others who have also been begotten by God through faith in Jesus.

If we love the one who begets, then we must also love the begotten.

For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.

The reading moves from faith and love to obedience.  It may be that the author wanted to insist that faith and love are not merely interior dispositions but must be manifested in some external way.

The commandments to be observed are not identified but only called out as not burdensome.

And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.

Faith also reveals itself in its victory over the world.  The world (kósmos) can be understood in three ways: the totality of natural creation, the inhabited world generally, and the inhabited world subject to sin.  The context here suggests that the third meaning is intended.

Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

Note that the messiahship of Jesus is now coupled with his divine sonship.  Faith in Jesus the Messiah and Son of God triumphs over evil.  It challenges anything that questions the exalted nature of Jesus and the power that flows from it.

This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ, not by water alone, but by water and blood.

Jesus inaugurated the reign of God and has ushered in the new age of fulfillment.  He accomplished this not merely at the time of his baptism (through water), when he received his messianic commission, but at the time of his death and resurrection (through blood), when he conquered death.

The Spirit is the one that testifies, and the Spirit is truth.

The spirit was present at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:10; John 1:32-34) and continues to witness to the work achieved through Christ by his presence in the Church.

So there are three that testify, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and the three are of one accord.

Just as the Spirit testifies (martyreo) to the meaning of the water and the blood, so the water and the blood (the baptism and death of Jesus) testify to the truth of Jesus’ exalted state as Messiah and Son of God.  According to the law and custom, there are now three witnesses, whose unified testimony satisfies the legal requirements of Deuteronomy 17:6.

If we accept human testimony, the testimony of God is surely greater. Now the testimony of God is this, that he has testified on behalf of his Son.

The author ends by insisting that if human testimony is accepted in accord with human custom (Deuteronomy 19:15), how much more should the testimony of God be accepted?

The trinitarian focus of this reading is clear.

Gospel – Mark 1:7-11

This is what John the Baptist proclaimed:
“One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee
and was baptized in the Jordan by John.
On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open
and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens,
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Today’s gospel reading is comprised of two parts: a summary of the central message of John’s preaching, and a description of the baptism of Jesus by John.

This is what John the Baptist proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me.

It is the gist of John’s preaching that has prompted commentators to label him a precursor.  He not only comes before Jesus, but he prepares the people for Jesus.  He does this by contrasting himself with Jesus, beginning with the statement that Jesus is more powerful than he.

I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.

Loosening the thongs of another’s sandals is the menial work of a household slave.  John does not hesitate emphasizing his own inferiority in comparison with Jesus.  He is not demeaning himself, but rather glorifying Jesus.

I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John next contrasts their respective baptisms.  Many ancient religions practiced ritual cleansing.  Such action had symbolic inner value because of the cleansing properties of water.  Jesus’ baptism, however, will be in the Holy Spirit.  This could be a reference to the eschatological time of fulfillment, when God promised to “sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities” and to “give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you” (Ezekiel 36:25-26).

“John was setting forth the anticipatory and ancillary value of his own baptism, showing that it had no other purpose than to lead to repentance. He did not say he baptized with water of forgiveness, but of repentance. He pointed toward Christ’s baptism, full of inexpressible gifts. John seems to be saying ‘… I am not worthy to be ranked to much as among Christ’s servants, no, not even the lowest of his servants, nor to receive the least honored portion of his ministry.’ Therefore John did not simply say, ‘his sandals,’ he said ‘the thong of his sandals,’ the part counted the least of all.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 370), Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew 11,5]

It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. 

The passage now shifts to the account of Jesus’ baptism.

The journey from Galilee consisted of traveling for several hours through rugged terrain and desert heat.  It is the lowest point on the face of the earth, about twelve hundred feet below sea level.  From a modern perspective, we might say that the Jordan River basin lies in the middle of nowhere.

Jesus had no need of baptism since he had no sin, but he chose to be baptized to demonstrate his solidarity with Israel and all humanity.  He is also modeling humility and obedience.  (Recall that Jesus had already been subjected to circumcision, presentation in the temple and being redeemed as the firstborn.)

By entering the same waters that the repentant are entering, he shows us that he has come to unite himself to sinners so that they may be restored in him to the Father.  In this action at the beginning of his messianic mission, Jesus foreshadows how he will bear the sins of all the world on the cross at the culmination of his public ministry.

“He allows himself to be numbered among sinners; he is already ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’ Already he is anticipating the ‘baptism’ of his bloody death.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 536]

On coming up out of the water

This does not necessarily mean that Jesus was immersed for his baptism. We can “come up out of the water” when we go wading at the beach and walk back up on the shore.

he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. 

“The Spirit of God descending like a dove” recalls how God’s Spirit hovered over the waters at the start of creation (Genesis 1:2).  It also brings to mind how Noah sent out a dove that hovered over the waters of the renewed creation after the Flood (Genesis 8:10-12).  Now that same Spirit falls on Jesus in the waters of the Jordan and thus signals another new beginning for the world: The broken, divided human family is about to be recreated in the one family of God through Christ’s Holy Spirit.

And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

As if to affirm Jesus’ identity and his mission, a voice from heaven speaks.

While the voice exalts Christ as the beloved Son of the Father, it also foreshadows the painful road the Son must travel.  God foretold through Isaiah that he would send a faithful servant to fulfill his plan of salvation.  God would rejoice in this servant, saying: “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him” (Isaiah 42:1, our first reading). This servant of the Lord would reunite all of Israel (Isaiah 49:5) and be a light to all the nations (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6).  Yet this servant would accomplish God’s redemptive plan through much suffering for our sins (Isaiah 53).

These words from heaven at Christ’s baptism echo Isaiah’s prophecy about the servant of the Lord, thus presenting Jesus as God’s faithful servant.  It subtly foreshadows how he will endure great affliction for our sins as the suffering servant from Isaiah.

Note that the mystery of the Holy Trinity is also revealed in the baptism of Jesus: the Son is baptized; the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove; and the voice of the Father gives testimony. Accordingly, Christians are baptized in the name of the three divine persons (Matthew 28:19).

Connections and Themes

The servant of God is the light and hope of the nations.   The servant of God is the one who is anointed with the Spirit and given a mission by God.  The mission is a universal charge to proclaim and establish justice for all the nations.  The servant is both the light that guides those in darkness and the source of clarity for judgment and understanding.  He is also the one through whom God’s saving action is accomplished.  This servant is given to the nations as the promise of liberation and as the hope of the age to come.  Jesus is this servant, and his mission is directed to all peoples.  In God’s work there is room for everyone.  There is no partiality when it comes to the offer of light and the work of justice.

The cosmic response to the work of the servant.  The servant’s work among the nations is so influential that it evokes the response of all creation.  In the face of such a universal gift, the heavens and earth erupt in praise and wonder of the mystery revealed by God’s servant.  God’s voice is creative; it speaks over creation and over the head of Jesus as he emerges from the waters of the Jordan.  The work of God includes the regeneration of nature; the work of Jesus beings in the waters that rejoice at his presence.

Jesus is the universal servant, baptized by John.  Anointed by the Spirit, Jesus is commissioned to begin his prophetic work and ministry, a work of inclusivity and the relinquishment of bondage and fear.  As the heavens open Jesus is identified as the beloved one of God.  By God’s good favor the community of believers is identified with Jesus the servant of God.  Through baptism Christians share in the prophetic and divine ministry of Christ.  They too receive an imperative with baptism, an imperative of committed service to the poor and to the cause of compassion.  The feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a reminder of the call to Christian service.

The season of Christmas ends with the community poised for the lenten journey of baptismal renewal.

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