Today, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we are encouraged to admire and adore the wisdom, goodness, and the beauty of our God; and, in the first reading we heard that God, speaking of the promised Messiah, said by the prophet Isaiah:
It is too little for You to be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will make You a light to the Gentiles, that My salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
Out of all the nations on earth, God had chosen to specially form, teach, guide and protect, one particular people – Israel -- as His Chosen People, chosen ultimately for the greater good and eternal salvation of all mankind. By the time of Isaiah that teaching and cherishing had been ongoing for over a thousand years, and Isaiah himself was one of the line of prophets sent by God to His Chosen People to prepare for the coming from among them of a Servant worthy and able to proclaim the name of the Lord and His saving Word in Israel and for the whole world. Israel could not of herself bring forth that definitive Servant of God’s salvation because Israel was, in her degree, infected by sin; rather, she would be the relatively holy stock from which that supremely and sublimely Holy Servant would arise Who would be uniquely able to reveal the Name, proclaim the Word, and show Himself to be the Salvation, of God for the whole of mankind.
In the fulness of time the Old Testament covenant had prepared a people able to bring forth the most pure and humble Virgin, 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.
She it was who would welcome, give birth to, and nurture the Son of God made Man as foreshadowed again in the prophecy of Isaiah (45:8):
Let justice descend, you heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the clouds drop it down. Let the earth open and salvation bud forth.
In Jesus, not only those who are Israelites by birth -- prepared over 2000 long years by a line of inspired prophets, dedicated priests, and chosen kings -- are called to become children of God in the 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 enabled, to turn from their former ways and believe in the Good News of Jesus brought to them by the universal Church founded upon His Apostles. For the proclamation of the New Testament is the offer and means of God’s salvation to all mankind, both Jews and Gentiles, through faith in Christ Who is the Spirit-anointed-Saviour of all. Mankind is to become one again in Jesus, all being offered a shared heritage as adopted children in the Kingdom of their heavenly Father, a heritage which the only-begotten-Son won for them by shedding His blood on the Cross of Calvary, a heritage for which the Holy Spirit bequeathed by Jesus alone could and would 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 -- through Jesus -- alongside and together with those He had cherished and nurtured for so long!!
Let us now turn to today’s Gospel passage where you heard John the Baptist, the forerunner 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, surely, 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 -- here signifying the peace between God and man which Jesus, the promised Prince of Peace, would 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:
Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (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.
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 ‘professional’ 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, indeed, 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 pharisaic 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 Spirit of Holiness, could they become holy; and the Spirit was wholly Jesus’ to give. That is why the He was seen by John the Baptist, 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 cultural and social heights in the ancient empires, and more recently in the glories of Greece and the achievements of Rome, nevertheless, they had become morally degraded despite all the truths they had espied, the beauties they had observed and created, and the grandeur of the social fabric they had established. They had sunken into all sorts of moral abominations and for this the Jews despised them, despite being subject to their military power. St. Paul, himself born and reared as a strict Jew, 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 – God made man --as He came 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 assume and redeem the sins of the world! The whole of human life had been infected with the sin of Adam in its lowest depths and 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 sin in order that forgiveness and fulfilment could be offered to all.
People of God, as we recall these truths, let us rejoice with full measure of gratitude for the coming of Him whom John the Baptist called:
The Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world;
and let us have due appreciation of that people specially chosen of old to prepare for the coming of Him Who -- as the Glory of Israel and Light of the Gentiles -- offers peace and salvation to all who believe in His Name. Let gratitude burgeon ever more and more in our hearts, dear People of God, to the Father Who sent us His Son, and Who, through the gift of His Most Holy Spirit -- the eternal bond of love between Father and Son -- will gather those of all climes and all ages able to recognize and willing to personally welcome Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, into one heavenly Family able to partake of and rejoice in the eternal feast prepared for them in the Kingdom of God the Father Who is All in all for all.