There was an atmosphere of tense expectancy among the crowd thronging to John by the banks of the Jordan: there was something about the man -- his solitary life-style, his obvious asceticism, and his powerful words – all of which made him seem like one of the old-style prophets whom the present generation of Jewish faithful had only heard spoken of as being from what seemed a dim and distant past. Indeed, but there was something more about John the Baptist: an undeniable and yet mysterious something which was causing many to think that he might possibly be the promised Messiah -- the Christ, as St. Luke puts it -- for whose coming Israel had been praying for centuries. Although John did his best to dampen these expectations of him, nevertheless, people came crowding to him for his baptism; and they were so centred on the person of John that they probably did not notice at all the figure of one more young man quietly joining the queue moving forward for baptism.
However, with the approach of that young man John’s ministry was nearing its fulfilment and his true purpose and identity were about to be revealed, for that young man had once – many years before – been brought (while still in His mother’s womb) to John, himself then shortly to be born, for John’s sanctification and preparation for his life’s work. And now that young man – Jesus of Nazareth – was being led to John once again, this time by His heavenly Father for His Son’s Personal commissioning and manifestation, and for John’s fulfilment as supreme witness and faithful forerunner:
He must increase, I must decrease.
Jesus, at His ‘coming of age’ as a son of the Law, having long recognized and now, for the first time, openly declaring God to be His most true and only Father, had – after being ‘lost’ in Jerusalem and, despite His youthful longing to be doing His Father’s business -- been led to recognize His duty to Mary His mother (and Joseph while still alive) to return with them to Nazareth and to live there obediently until His human maturity. He grew in grace and favour before God and men, but His own longing remained the same, to be about His Father’s business, and He did ever await, and ever more diligently listen for, His Father’s call in all the circumstances of His daily life and professional work, above all, however, in His Personal prayer and participation in synagogue worship.
He had heard of John the Baptist’s prophetic work and of its effect on many of Israel’s faithful; and He had begun to wonder if He should be there, where people were openly acknowledging their need of God, and where His Father was manifestly at work .... He so longed to seek out His Father’s traces! And thus it came about: Jesus joined the crowd of God-seekers around John; listening and watching, not so much for John, His publicly-acclaimed relative, as for His own supremely beloved and, as yet, most secret Father.
When that apparently indistinguishable young man was actually receiving John’s baptism a voice spoke from heaven and a dove descended on Him: John saw the dove and perhaps heard the words spoken; the people, however, though they sensed the unique atmosphere of sacred presence, saw and heard nothing humanly distinct, because the words from heaven were directed not to them but to the young man Himself:
When Jesus had been baptized and, (as He) 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."
John had been prepared for such a vision, for God had told him that:
One mightier than (he was) coming, who (would) baptize (the people) with the Holy Spirit and fire.
As a result, John had been able to recognize Jesus when he saw:
the Holy Spirit descend in bodily form like a dove upon (Him).
John might even have been permitted to hear those words the voice from heaven addressed to Jesus; however, it may also have been that such personal words from the Father in heaven to His only-begotten Son were too intimate and too holy for even one so exalted as John the Baptist to be allowed to hear. Consequently, we in Mother Church should recognize that we are wonderfully privileged to know not only what the Jewish penitents by the Jordan certainly did not know, though Jesus was bodily present in their midst, but also what perhaps even John the Baptist himself was not allowed to hear; and that, of course, would be in perfect accord with the words Jesus was to speak later concerning John (Matthew 11:11):
Among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Nevertheless, whether or not he heard the words, John most certainly saw the Spirit descending like a dove on Jesus, and would, undoubtedly, have immediately recalled what had happened to Noah in the beginning (Genesis 8:10-12):
Noah sent the dove out from the ark. Then the dove came to him in the evening, and behold, a freshly plucked olive leaf was in her mouth; and Noah knew that the waters had receded from the earth.
Noah realised that mankind’s punishment had come to an end when the dove returned to the Ark bearing the olive branch in its beak, for that was a sign that the waters of the flood were retreating and land was once more to be seen: land waiting to bring forth fruit again for those surviving the punishing flood. Likewise, when John saw the Spirit descend like a dove on Jesus it is highly likely that he was prophetically privileged to appreciate that mankind’s ancient servitude to sin was coming to its end and that they would be enabled to find, once again, acceptance and peace with God through this mysterious young relative of his, Jesus, now standing before him, dripping water and engrossed in prayer. John knew well those words of Isaiah which we heard in our first reading:
Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. He will not fail nor be discouraged, till He has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands shall wait for His law.
Indeed, it was with such a One in mind that he had told the waiting people:
I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
The Son, with Whom the voice of the Father declared Himself delighted, was -- as Son -- One with the Spirit in the glory of the Father; He was thereby, indeed, able as the Messianic leader to receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit in His human nature and, indeed, would shortly ‘deploy’ that human fullness of Holiness and Power for the very first time by entering upon the ultimate preparation for His public ministry through an encounter with and victory over His arch-enemy, the Devil, in the desert, the Devil’s very own dwelling-place.
We learn from words of Jesus recorded by St. Luke (12:49), words spoken shortly before His final and conclusive encounter with the Satan on Calvary, with what dispositions Jesus received His baptismal endowment of the Spirit:
I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
Jesus received in His own humanity the Spirit He would subsequently pour out over human kind in and through His Church; for the hearts and minds of those true disciples who would have faith in, and give obedience to, Jesus could only be cleansed of their native sinfulness by such a Gift as the Spirit, Who, in His cleansing activity would indeed show Himself as a Spirit of fire: a purifying fire preparing the way for the new life and growth of a new People, the Body of Christ.
That ardent longing of Jesus to ‘send fire on the earth’ was, indeed, the very purpose for which, having risen from the dead, He expressly equipped His Church, the very work He confirmed His Apostles to spearhead:
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. (Acts 2:1-3)
John the Baptist had spoken of the work that Jesus’ baptism would accomplish when he declared:
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.
That was how John, the greatest of Old Testament prophets, understood the image of fire. However, that is an understanding we can and should appreciate more fully in the light of the subsequent work of Jesus here on earth and of His Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. The Spirit would indeed ‘burn the chaff’ in the hearts of His chosen ones, and the greater their obedience and docility, the more they would allow Him a free hand in their lives, the greater would be the blaze of purifying love He would kindle and enflame within them. For the world at large, however -- for those stumbling and hurting themselves in the darkness of sin -- He would show Himself to be the Spirit of Love and of Truth, a tongue of fire enabling the Apostles and prophets of Mother Church to proclaim the love of God and His Good News of peace for all of good will (Matthew 10:20):
It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.
People of God, let us learn from the baptism of Our Lord something of the nature of our vocation. If the Spirit of Jesus is to be heard by the world around us, a deeply sinful world delighting in its own disfigurement … if He is to be heard and appreciated by them in the manner of that beautiful word-picture painted by the great prophet Isaiah (52:7) who says:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation;
if, indeed, we are to help our world encounter Jesus as He Himself wanted to be found by them:
The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18),
then, People of God, we must implore the Spirit of Jesus to work in us as fire, as purifying fire in our very deepest selves, purging us ever more and more from our sinfulness, and enabling us to commit ourselves ever more whole-heartedly to Our Lord and Saviour. That is the only spirit of sacrifice, the only testimony of fraternal love, that can make us true disciples of Him Who sacrificed Himself for the sins of our world. We cannot trust in our own presumed zeal and good intentions; for what is needed most of all today is not that we -- as individuals -- show off ourselves as good people doing good things, nor that we -- as a body -- continually try to come up with new ideas, new gimmicks, to attract people; but that the Spirit of Jesus is able to find a welcome in the hearts of the men and women of our day thanks to Mother Church’s authentic proclamation of, and faithful witness to, the Good News of Jesus, and by our own deepest prayers and most sincere endeavours to allow the Spirit to work fully and freely in us, leading us along the ways of Jesus: ways of self-sacrifice for the good of our brethren and ways of gratitude and praise for the glory of our Father in heaven.