Jan 13, 2019: Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (C)

What Is the Meaning of Jesus’ Baptism?

Introduction

The sacrament of baptism is necessary for the remission of sins, particularly original sin. If Christ was sinless, why was he baptized?

In submitting himself humbly to the baptism of St. John the Baptist, Christ provided the example for the rest of us. If he were baptized, even without needing to be, how much more should the rest of us be thankful for this sacrament, which frees us from the darkness of sin and incorporates us into the Church, the life of Christ on earth.  His baptism was necessary — not for him, but for us.

Many of the Fathers of the Church, as well as the medieval scholastics, saw Christ’s Baptism as the institution of the sacrament. It also marked the beginning of his public ministry.

Liturgically, the Feast of the Baptism of The Lord begins a period in the liturgical calendar which is called Ordinary Time. During this period, we are guided through the gospel readings in a chronological manner from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry through his entry into Jerusalem for his passion, death, and resurrection; an event for which we interrupt the cycle of Ordinary Time to celebrate during the Easter season.

During Cycle A, the gospel readings come from Matthew, during Cycle B, from Mark (augmented with selections from the Gospel of John because Mark is so short), and during Cycle C, from Luke.

1st Reading – Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7

Thus says the LORD:
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.

I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.

This week’s first reading is the first of four passages (49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12) traditionally known as the Servant Songs of Isaiah.  They constitute a unique set of poems that identify a mysterious figure who acts as a pious agent of God’s compassionate care.

Thus says the LORD: Here is my servant whom I uphold,

Very few people were called “my servant” by God: Abraham (Genesis 26:24), Moses (Numbers 12:7), Caleb (Numbers 14:24), Job (Job 1:8), and, most frequently, David (2 Samuel 3:18).

my chosen one with whom I am pleased,

This statement will be echoed at Jesus’ baptism (today’s gospel reading) and at the transfiguration (Matthew 17:5).

Upon whom I have put my spirit;

Being endowed with God’s own spirit was even more significant than being called “my servant.”  Israelite leaders who received God’s spirit, such as judges (Judges 6:34; 11:29,32; 14:19), kings (1 Samuel 16:13), and prophets (Micah 3:8; Ezekiel 11:5), were empowered by God to take action.

he shall bring forth justice to the nations,

And this is the action the servant is empowered to take.  Administering justice was normally reserved for kings, priests, and local magistrates.  Note that this particular brand of justice will be delivered not only to Israel, but to all nations. God created the whole world and desires to save all of it.

Not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, Until he establishes justice on the earth;

This modesty and quiet manner of the servant is quite extraordinary.  His justice is not harsh and exacting, and he does not make a public pronouncement of God’s judgment.  He will not compound the distress of an already suffering people, but rather be a source of consolation.

the coastlands

The lands of the Mediterranean.  In the Old Testament, the word often refers to the pagan lands of the west.  Again we see that this chosen one will serve not only Israel, but all peoples.

will wait for his teaching.

The servant now has another quality: he is a teacher.  Teaching was a task never done by kings, but only by prophets (Isaiah 8:16; Zechariah 7:12) and priests (Jeremiah 2:8; Ezekiel 7:26).

I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice, I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people,

God, now speaking directly to the servant, is emphasizing the deliberateness of his choice: I called you, I grasped you, I formed you, I set you.

a light for the nations,

The universalism of the message is underscored.

To open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.

Specific instances of human suffering are listed, but they are probably intended to represent any form of darkness and confinement.  This brings together the themes throughout the reading: the servant will bring forth justice and be a light to the nations, and here, this light will open the eyes of those relegated to darkness.

2nd Reading – Acts 10:34-38

Peter proceeded to speak to those gathered
in the house of Cornelius, saying:
“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him.
You know the word that he sent to the Israelites
as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all,
what has happened all over Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the baptism
that John preached,
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power.
He went about doing good
and healing all those oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him.”

Today’s second reading takes place at the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Cornelius was a proselyte of the type who, attracted by Judaism’s monotheistic beliefs and strict code of ethics, attended synagogue services and observed the Ten Commandments but did not become a full member of the Jewish community (which would require circumcision and observance of the dietary restrictions).

Earlier in this chapter of Acts, Cornelius was visited by an angel while he was at prayer and directed to summon Peter from Joppa. When Peter arrived and heard of the vision of Cornelius, he instructed him in the story of the life, death, and messiahship of Jesus. At the end of the instruction the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and all his household and conferred upon them the gift of tongues. Peter found this sufficient justification to baptize them, although they were Gentiles: the first Gentile converts.

Today we hear some of Peter’s instruction to them prior to the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Then Peter proceeded to speak and said, “In truth, I see

This introductory phrase indicates that he was not always open to the ideas he is about to set forth.

that God shows no partiality.

Literally, “God is not one showing favors,” which is an allusion to Deuteronomy 10:17 (see also 2 Chronicles 19:7). God has no favorites and doesn’t accept bribes. This is a newly gained insight for Peter: just before the summon from Cornelius, he received a vision that instructed him not to call any person profane or unclean (10:28).  Salvation is available to all.

Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.

What is translated as “acts uprightly” is literally, “practices righteousness.” This can be done even if one is not a Jew.

You know the word that he sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all,

Peter presumed that since Cornelius and his family lived in Judea, they had heard something about the life and ministry of Jesus.

what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached,

John the Baptist was a well-known non-conformist — an irritant to the Jewish leadership and a threat to Pax Romana (Latin for “Roman Peace,” the period of relative peace and stability experienced across nationalities within the Roman Empire).

A centurion stationed in this small country would recognize John’s name, even if only from gossip.

how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the holy Spirit and power.

This is probably a reference to Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens opened and the Spirit descended upon him (Luke 3:21-22) as well as an allusion to Isaiah 61:1, which Jesus quoted in reference to himself in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:18).

He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”

Peter makes a point of mentioning those oppressed by the devil, probably because those possessed by demons were considered to be the most unclean of the unclean.  Despite this, Jesus did not relegate them to the margins of society as others did.  He touched them and healed them.  Through his contact with the Gentiles (observant Jews would not normally even enter a Gentile home), Peter is modeling Jesus by interacting with a group of people considered by many to be unclean.

Gospel – Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

The people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

After all the people had been baptized
and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,
heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him
in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased.”

Today’s gospel reading includes two distinct but related incidents: John’s disavowal that he is the Christ, and the circumstances around the baptism of Jesus by John.

The people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah.

At the time of John the Baptist and Jesus, the people were heavy with anticipation.  They were looking for the Christ, which means “the anointed one” – the savior that had been foretold by the prophets and whom they expected would deliver them from Roman oppression.

John answered them all, saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming.

In three ways, John contrasts himself with the Messiah they are looking for.  First, he admits that the one who is to come is mightier than he.

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

Second, John states that the Christ is far superior to himself.  The menial task of loosening sandals was below the dignity of a Hebrew slave, although disciples were known to show respect for their teachers in this way.

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Thirdly, John contrasts their respective baptisms.  John’s baptism with water was a ritual of repentance and cleansing; the Christ baptism of the Spirit and fire will transform and purge.

In Scripture, fire often indicates the presence of God (Genesis 15:17; Exodus 3:1-4; Numbers 14:14).

After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,

Jesus clearly has submitted himself to John’s form of baptism, but in Luke’s gospel there is no description of the actual event.  Instead, he describes what happened while Jesus was at prayer, after the baptism had occurred.

heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him

The imagery of heavens opening suggests some sort of apocalyptic phenomenon, as in Ezekiel 1:1. Here, it is a prelude for the descent of the Holy Spirit.

in bodily form like a dove.

“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.

The deliberate use of the phrase “in bodily form” is very interesting — it suggests that the Holy Spirit was visible to all.  This phrasing is unique to Luke’s account of the story.

And a voice came from heaven, “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 baptism of Jesus. Jesus’ baptism inaugurates him as the Christ, the anointed Messiah of God.  Our first reading indicates the kind of Messiah he will be – not executing harsh justice or wielding a sword of vengeance, but a gentle servant.  The characteristics of the Messiah are contradictory: he is gentle, but mighty; he is chosen by the high God, but committed to the needy and the marginal; he comes from an insignificant village, but is anointed with the Holy Spirit.  He does not conform to the expectations of a proud and self-absorbed society.

For whom did he come?  The second reading shows that the Messiah of God came for all people without distinction.  He came for the people who were broken and suffering, for those who were blind, for those who were marginalized by society. He came for people like Cornelius, who was not only a Gentile, but was a centurion in the Roman army, despised by the entire community and a threat to the people.  He came for people we have pushed out as well as those who we have refused to let in.

Cosmic ramifications.  Through the servant in Isaiah, God has fashioned a new society, one of justice, compassion, healing, and liberation from sin.  In Jesus, the Messiah who arrives as a servant, the creative and re-creative majesty of God is revealed in its premier form – all creation is made new.  Walls of hatred have crumbled, and all are bound together in the peace of Christ.

We who are baptized share in this new creation and in the messianic responsibility of declaring this good news to the ends of the earth.  As disciples of Jesus, we continue the servant ministry he took upon himself; it is now through us that God re-creates society.  The Christmas season ends with us as participants in the servant messiahship of Jesus.

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