Jan 12, 2020: Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (A)

Introduction

This christological feast is the celebration of Jesus as the anointed servant of God. 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.

Liturgically it serves as a bridge, bringing to a close the liturgical Christmas season, which reveals who God is for us and who we are to be for others in Christ, and beginning the period in the liturgical calendar called Ordinary Time. In fact, 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.

Originally the baptism of Christ was celebrated on Epiphany, and still is in the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches. Over time in the West, however, the celebration of the baptism of the Lord came to be commemorated as a distinct feast from Epiphany; Pope Pius XII instituted in 1955 a separate liturgical commemoration of the Baptism.

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 traditionally known as the Servant Songs of Isaiah (49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). They constitute a unique set of poems that identify a mysterious figure: the ideal Servant of God, the perfect Israelite, whose consecration to the divine will, even in the midst of terrible suffering, shall take away the sins of many (Isaiah 53:2).

This passage was written during the Babylonian exile, to give the people hope in the midst of their suffering.

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 (Num 14:24), Job (Job 1:8), and, most frequently, David (2 Samuel 3:18).

The servant referred to here is understood to be the nation of Israel. There is special comfort for Israel in God referring to them as my servant; the exile was a terrible and troublesome time for the Israelites, causing them to question their whole understanding of their covenant relationship with God. God had promised that David’s kingdom would be secure forever, but now David’s kingdom was no more. Had the Israelites misunderstood their relationship with God? Were they, in fact, God’s chosen people?

my chosen one with whom I am pleased,

Isaiah responds to these questions with a resounding “yes.” Israel is God’s servant whom God upholds. The exiles’ suffering is not a sign that God has deserted them; rather, God has a purpose in their suffering.

This phrase is echoed at Jesus’ baptism, which we hear about in today’s Gospel reading, and at the transfiguration (Matthew 17:5). The Servant Songs speak of a servant who suffers greatly.  As such, they were not originally understood to be in reference to the hoped-for messiah, because the messiah was not expected to suffer. However, after Jesus suffered, died, and rose from the dead, the Servant Songs were used to probe the mystery of a suffering messiah.

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.

Receiving God’s spirit is necessary for any redemptive work.

he shall bring forth justice to the nations,

The servant’s mission is to deliver justice, a commission normally reserved for kings, priests, and local magistrates.

Note that 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 administration of justice is not harsh and exacting, and 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 coastlands” often refers to the pagan lands of the west.  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.

The mission of the servant is clearly determined by God, not by the servant himself.

a light for the nations,

The universalism of the message is underscored. Through their suffering and subsequent salvation, the Israelites will bring other nations to a knowledge of God.

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 likely intended to represent any form of darkness and confinement.  The entire world will be rescued from every type of suffering.

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 newly converted Roman centurion. Cornelius was a convert 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 full members of the Jewish community by 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, despite the fact that 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.

Peter proceeded to speak to those gathered in the house of Cornelius,

Normally, an observant Jew like Peter would not enter the home of a Gentile.  Something new is happening.

saying: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.

The first words of his discourse are structured in a way that reflects the newness of this insight: Peter was not always open to association with Gentiles. Just before the summons from Cornelius, he received a vision that instructed him not to call any person profane or unclean (10:28).  Although Peter knew Jesus intimately, he is just starting to fully grasp the radical nature of the gospel.

Contrary to what many Jews thought, the revelation of God’s choice of Israel as the people of God does not mean he withholds divine favor from other people.

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

What is translated as “uprightly” is literally, “practices righteousness.” All are acceptable to God, Jew and Gentile alike.

You know the word that he sent to the Israelites

Either Peter presumed that since Cornelius and his family lived in Judea, they had heard something about the life and ministry of Jesus, or these words are more directed to Luke’s Christian readers than the household of Cornelius.

as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all,

The proclamation (“Jesus is Lord of all”) that was first made to the Jews will be made to the Gentiles.  Inclusivity is the centerpiece of this reading.

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

John the Baptist was a “disturber of the peace,” if you will, and a name that Cornelius, a Roman centurion stationed in this small country, would recognize.

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

The mention of anointing is 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, Peter was also interacting with a group of people considered by many to be unclean.  And like Jesus, he disregarded such a judgment and refused to conform.

Jesus’ anointing “with the Holy Spirit and power” resulting in Jesus going about doing good. The baptism that Jesus gives us, a baptism of the Holy Spirit, enables us to go about doing good just as Jesus did, in his name.

Gospel – Matthew 3:13-17

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan
to be baptized by him.
John tried to prevent him, saying,
“I need to be baptized by you,
and yet you are coming to me?”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us
to fulfill all righteousness.”
Then he allowed him.
After Jesus was baptized,
he came up from the water and behold,
the heavens were opened for him,
and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove
and coming upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens, saying,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

The fact of Jesus’ baptism has been a christological and theological issue almost since it happened. Why would Jesus, who was sinless, participate in a rite for sinners?  And why would Jesus, the Messiah and clearly superior to John the Baptist, submit to the authority of John? In his gospel, Matthew addresses these issues.

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.

This journey 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 spent about thirty years (Luke 3:23) in what is sometimes called his “hidden life,” the period of time from his birth until the beginning of his public ministry. Except for the incident of his parents finding him in the Temple when he was twelve, we know nothing about his childhood. There may be many reasons why he waited so long before beginning his public ministry, but one factor may have been the Jewish custom whereby rabbis did not carry out their function as teachers until they were thirty years old.

John the Baptist prepares the people to receive the Messiah according to God’s plan; it is only after he has done so that Jesus commences his public life.

John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”

Scripture scholars believe that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source when they were compiling their own gospels. This provides us a way to interpret those gospels: by comparing their accounts to Mark’s. When Matthew diverges from his source, he does so for a reason.

In Mark’s account, John does not raise an objection to baptizing Jesus, as he does here. By placing this question on John’s lips, Matthew gives himself an occasion to respond to a question raised by many: Why would Jesus need to be baptized? Who would be worthy to baptize the Son of God?

Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” 

Righteousness (justice) has a very deep meaning in Scripture; it refers to the plan which God, in his infinite wisdom and goodness, has marked out for man’s salvation. In short, fulfilling all righteousness means to do God’s will, to promote justice.

Jesus, who has come to fulfill the Father’s will (John 4:34), is careful to submit to the plan of God for the salvation of the entire human race. He has identified with those whom he has come to save.

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]

Then he allowed him.

Moments before this scene, John had called the Jewish leaders a “brood of vipers” — to their faces!

But here, the stern John obeyed the gentle command of the Lamb of God and baptized him.

After Jesus was baptized,

There is no description of the actual baptism, but we do have an account of what happened after the baptism occurred.  All the verbs indicate that the events happened to Jesus; they were not accomplished by him or through him.

he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him.

Jesus already possessed the fullness of the Holy Spirit from the moment of his conception; this theophany was for the benefit of the observers. This moment would have allowed them to discern who Jesus really is: the beloved Son of the Father.

It’s easy for us to overlook what would have been a tremendous moment of manifestation. It’s easy for us to see Jesus identity, because we are heirs to two thousand years of theological development. We know that Jesus is the Eternal Word who took upon himself our human nature, that he’s from all eternity God the Son, and that the Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Triune God. But to those who at that time didn’t realize the divinity of Jesus and knew nothing of the Trinity, the coming of the Spirit was truly spectacular.

“The Spirit of God descending like a dove” also recalls how God’s Spirit hovered over the waters at the start of creation (Genesis 1:2).  It further 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).  Here, the same Spirit descends upon 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, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom 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; 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. The baptism of Jesus inaugurates his ministry as the anointed one, or the Messiah of God. The passage from Isaiah indicates the kind of Messiah God intends Jesus to be. He will not exercise harsh justice as a mighty judge would. Nor will he wield the sword of vengeance on the battlefield. The Messiah of God will be a servant, one who, though mighty, is gentle; one who is chosen by the high God, yet committed to the needy and the marginal; one who is the proclaimed son of God and who still attends to the least within the human community. The Messiah of God may have come from an insignificant village like Nazareth, but he was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power. He taught the coastlands and he healed those who under the power of the devil. The Messiah of God does not conform to the expectations of a proud and self-absorbed society. Filled with the Spirit of God, the Messiah of God acts out of that gentle, compassionate spirit.

For whom did he come? For whom did the Messiah of God come? For those whom that society discarded. He came for people who were broken and suffering, for those who are blind, for those who were imprisoned. He came for people who are so easily pushed to the margins, beyond our view, where the circumstances of their lives will not trouble us: the homeless, the unemployed, the abandoned children, the helpless elderly, the mentally and chronically ill. He also came to people who, like Cornelius, do not belong to our inner circles, people who for any number of reasons threaten us, people we might actually despise. He came for the strangers among us, those who have difficult cultural customs, those who worship in different ways. He came for people we have pushed out as well as for those we have refused to let in. The Messiah of God came for all people without distinction.

3 thoughts on “Jan 12, 2020: Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (A)

  1. Hello, Laura.

    A very well-written, but a rather long post to read. I do it myself too, on subjects that are a pleasure to write.

    It was interesting to read the difference between Jesus and Peter in their approach toward the unclean. However, without the special powers said to be the vested in Jesus, any person today attempting to do the same might open himself to dangers; to spiritual contamination.

    Thank you, for sharing. Best wishes!

    Like

    1. Thank you for this great feedback! I’ve been wondering if the posts are too long.

      Do you think the descent of the Holy Spirit on Peter at Pentecost would have protected him from the vulnerability you describe?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re welcome. Please, write as much as little as feel comfortable with!

    Interesting question. Pentecost is recorded as an exceptional and supernatural event – a special appointment. Its evidence and its effects could not be denied by anyone. Peter would, according to scripture, be given supernatural protection, but he still continued to have human frailties and tendencies. Those frailties and tendencies can make any human, including Peter, vulnerable.

    I hope, this answers your question.

    Thanks.

    Like

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