In the first reading, taken from the book of the prophet Isaiah, we heard that God, speaking immediately to His Chosen People but ultimately embracing His promised Messiah, had said:
It is too little for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
Out of all the nations on earth, God had specially chosen, cherished and taught, one people, which became known as Israel. By the time of Isaiah that teaching and cherishing had been ongoing for over a thousand years, and Isaiah himself was one of a line of prophets sent by God to His Chosen People to form it into a servant worthy and able to take God’s Name and His saving Word to the whole world. Israel could not be the definitive Servant of God’s salvation because she herself, in her degree, shared in and was wounded by the sin of the world. Nevertheless, she would be the stock from which that ultimate Servant of God would rise Who would be uniquely able to fittingly reveal the Name, manifest and proclaim the Word, and show Himself to be the Salvation, of Israel’s God for the good of all mankind.
By means of the Old Testament covenant with Israel God did ultimately prepare a people able to bring forth the wondrously holy and sublimely beautiful Mary of Nazareth, of whom we read in the Song of Songs (2:1):
I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys, a lily among thorns.
Uniquely adorned with true and God-rejoicing humility, she it was who would welcome, endow with human flesh and blood, nurture and bring up, the Son and Servant of God that He might become the Son-of-man foreshadowed in the prophecy of Isaiah:
Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the skies drop it down. Let the earth open and salvation bud forth. (45:8)
In Jesus – Son of God, become Son of Mary and Son of Man -- not only the Chosen People are called to become children of God in the well-beloved Son, but also the Gentiles -- who for millennia had walked in darkness and lived under the shadow of death -- are to be evangelized, invited, and empowered, to turn from their former ways and embrace the Good News of Jesus brought to them by His universal Church founded upon the Apostles. The proclamation of the New Testament is, indeed, God’s offer of salvation to all nations through faith in Jesus, the Spirit-anointed-Saviour Who brings glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace to men of goodwill. For mankind is to become one again in Jesus; sharing, as adopted children, a common heritage in the Kingdom of the Father, a heritage which the only-begotten-Son has won for them by shedding His blood on the Cross of Calvary before rising again on the third day; a heritage for which the Spirit bequeathed by Jesus will prepare them.
We should be filled with gratitude, People of God, as we think on this: God trained the Jewish people for 2000 years, and then, in His immense mercy and goodness, put us -- in Jesus -- alongside and together with those He had chosen and cherished for so long!! As St. Paul told the Christians of Rome (11:16-17):
If the root is holy, then the branches also are holy. And you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in to share the rich root of the olive tree.
Let us now turn to today’s Gospel passage where you heard John the Baptist, the fore-runner of the promised Messiah, revealing Jesus to the Jewish people:
“I did not know Him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that He might be made known to Israel.” John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon Him. I did not know Him, but the One who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, He is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that He is the Son of God.”
You remember the scene when Jesus was coming up from the waters of the Jordan used by John for his baptism? It was then -- when Jesus was dripping with water -- that John saw the Spirit coming down upon Jesus in the form of a dove, the symbol of peace, signifying here peace between God and man, and peace among men of good will; that peace which Jesus -- the promised Prince of Peace – alone could bring about.
Think of that scene, People of God, and then remember the words Jesus was later to say to Nicodemus, a leader among the Jews:
Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. (John 3:5)
Water and the Spirit: what did they mean for the Jews and the Gentiles, both called in Christ, the Saviour of the whole world, to become God’s children? Listen, and wonder at the wisdom, the beauty, and the goodness, of God; for, in order to save mankind from the bonds of sin and death, God had to convict mankind of their sinfulness, in order that they might turn from sin, reject it, and embrace -- gratefully and wholeheartedly -- God’s offer of eternal life in Jesus, His beloved and only-begotten Son.
The Chosen People had, over thousands of years, become a supremely spiritual and moral people; and yet, although they had been given a Law which was holy, they had, in their observance of that Law, become ever more reliant on their own efforts: they had come to think that they were able to observe that Law by themselves and imagined they could, in that way, prove themselves worthy to be the Chosen People of God. They came to regard themselves as having been chosen, not out of God’s boundless mercy, but because of their own particular spiritual superiority and ability; to believe that God had been right in choosing them, because they -- above all other nations -- had the strength of will and moral character to keep His Law. There, People of God, we recognize the sin of the Jews: spiritual pride.
In this scene by the Jordan where John was offering a baptism of repentance, the Jewish people were being told that it was only by God's free gift of the Holy Spirit -- to be given through Jesus the Lamb of God -- that they could practice a holiness acceptable to Him Who is the all-holy One; only by God’s Gift, which is the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Holiness, could they become holy; and the Spirit was wholly Jesus’ to give, which is why the Spirit was to be seen descending and resting upon Jesus as He came up out of the waters.
The Gentiles on the other hand, although they had risen to great social and cultural heights in the ancient empires, and most recently in the glories of Greece and the achievements of Rome, nevertheless, they had become morally degenerate despite all the truths they had glimpsed, the beauties they had created, and the grandeur of the social fabric they had established. They had sunken into all sorts of moral abominations for which the Jews had come to despise them, despite themselves being subject to Rome’s omnipresent and all- subduing military power.
St. Paul, himself born and reared as a strict Pharisee, expressed this awareness of the Jews with regard to their conquerors when he wrote to the Romans:
Although they (the Gentiles) knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. …. God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them. (1:21-32)
There you have the Gentiles’ sin: wallowing in abominations for which they needed to become repentant if they were to be washed clean; a cleansing symbolised by the water dripping off Jesus as He came up, out of the waters of the Jordan.
Water and the Spirit for the cleansing of Jews and Gentiles: water and the Spirit, whereby Jesus would take upon HImself and redeem the sins of the world! The whole of human life had been infected with the sin of Adam from its lowest depths to its highest achievements: social life, intellectual vigour, and spiritual aspirations, all had been stained by the Gentiles’ lust for pleasure and power, and the spiritual pride of Judaism; all had to be convicted of their sin in order that forgiveness and fulfilment could be offered to all.
People of God, as we recall these truths, let us rejoice with the deepest gratitude to the Father Who sent His beloved, only-begotten Son as:
The Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world;
let us have generous appreciation for that people specially chosen of old to prepare the coming of Him Who -- as the Glory of Israel and Light of the Gentiles – now offers peace and salvation to all who believe in His Name; let us, finally, open our hearts to embrace His gift of the Spirit Who -- as the eternal bond of love between Father and Son -- wills to make us members of the heavenly Family and eternal Kingdom of God the Father.