The Baptism of Our Lord (B)
(Isaiah 42: 1-4. 6-7; Acts 10: 34-38; St. Mark 1:7-11)
“Behold, I tell you a mystery” are words of St. Paul in his first letter to his converts at Corinth that are most applicable to our considerations on today’s feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.
Let us first of all look at John the Baptist and his work of baptising or immersing. For preference I will use the word “immersing” because John was not baptising in the way we understand ‘baptism’ since Jesus came. Jesus’ baptism forgives sin, John’s immersing was simply a token of sincere repentance calling for God’s mercy and guidance; John’s immersing foreshadowed Jesus’ baptism just as John’s preaching presaged Jesus’ Gospel.
John had been sent to warn the people of God that a great judgement was imminent, and that they would have to mend their ways if they wanted to survive that judgement. He had a special message for those who -- having fallen away from Temple and synagogue worship and daily obedience to the Law -- now wanted to return to faithful Jewish practice. In keeping with the seriousness and the urgency of the situation John proclaimed to such people, coming in crowds to hear him preaching by the banks of the river Jordan, that merely ritual immersions or lustrations were not enough. He called on those who were seriously repentant to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance, to actually start doing what was right and just. They must, John said, first of all bring forth visible, tangible, proof of repentance, for no merely ritual immersion in water could purify a wicked soul; and he insisted, God would not be satisfied with anything less than true righteousness. Those aware of, and sorry for, their previous sins and failings had to make it clear to the Lord, to themselves, and to John, that they were actually turning away from past evil and were truly and sincerely desirous of making up for past misdeeds as best they could. God alone could cleanse those guilty of sinful lives, but, John proclaimed, He would cleanse the hearts of those who, in this way, showed sincere repentance by taking upon themselves the practice of righteousness.
Once the heart had, indeed, been cleansed by God, then the immersion they were seeking from John would also serve to purify the body, for bodily purity was of the utmost importance for all those Jewish believers who wished to be acceptable to God through obedience to His Law. The whole person, inside and outside, had to be prepared to do the whole of God’s will, which demanded right moral behaviour together with true and acceptable worship.
Let us now turn our thoughts to Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all the evangelists that is, tell us about John’s baptism of Jesus; or better, about the immersion of Jesus, by John, in the Jordan. On the other hand, only two of them, Matthew and Luke, tell us about the birth of Jesus. Mark and John do not mention the manner of His birth because, for them, everything about Jesus our Saviour really began with the wondrous happenings on the occasion of His immersion by John in the Jordan, when the Father’s voice was heard from heaven and the Holy Spirit visibly descended upon Jesus to guide and strengthen Him in His obedience to and work for the Father.
How are we to understand these differences in approach?
We should note, first of all, that although Matthew and Luke tell us of the conception of
Jesus by the Holy Spirit and of His birth from the Virgin Mary, they make no mention whatsoever of the Child Jesus doing any marvels in the power of the Spirit: all such mighty deeds only come after His immersion by John; in that respect all four evangelists are in full agreement.
So, we can see that though Jesus was indeed born of the Virgin Mary by the working of the Holy Spirit, and although He was born holy and the Son of God, as Luke tells us:
The angel said to Mary, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God”; (1:35)
or, to quote St. Matthew (1:23):
"The virgin will be with Child and will give birth to a Son, and they will call Him Immanuel"-- which means, "God with us",
nevertheless, for both Matthew and Luke, the Child -- though Son of God – was, indeed, also a most truly human Child, and this had to be shown by detailing the fact that, Jesus had, first of all, to begin slowly by a most beautiful experience (with Mary and Joseph!) of an ordinary human childhood, before then, developing through youth and early manhood as a fellow-worker with Joseph, as a worshipper at the local synagogue, and as a noticeable village member, He could finally -- as a mature man -- enter upon the fullness of His saving work as our Lord and Saviour.
As Luke explicitly tells us:
Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men. (2:52)
Jesus grew not only in tune with God but also as a Man with men, becoming ever more and more aware of the powers and weakness, the potentialities and frailties, of the humanity He had assumed: a humanity which, though pure and holy in His case, was nevertheless, a humanity which simply could not enable Him to do all that He longed to do for His Father and among His fellow-villagers at Nazareth. Unknown to those around Him – unknown even to Mary His mother -- He was living in tune with God at an increasingly divine level and was, consequently, being filled with an awareness, on the one hand, ever deeper and more Personally painful, and yet, on the other hand, ever more compassionate and understanding, of human need and insufficiency.
And then, He heard what His distant relative John the Baptist – who had been in the desert for years -- was now doing in the name of God for the crowds of people coming to him from Jerusalem and all its surroundings to hear his proclamation of the coming Messiah and to be immersed by him in the waters of the river Jordan!!
Now we are prepared to understand the meeting of John the Baptist and Jesus on the banks of the Jordan. Jesus came to John, along with all those who were dissatisfied with their past response to and present relationship with the God of Israel, because this was the one place in all Israel where God could be seen to be manifestly at work, and Jesus Himself -- about 30 years old and in the full maturity of His manhood -- was wanting above all to put Himself into the closest proximity with God-His-Father publicly at work among His people, in order to give the very fullest expression to His own total longing to be active -- physically as well as spiritually -- at work with and for His father, that God’s will be done in Israel. And this most urgent longing was no mere psychological experience of Jesus’, it was His heavenly Father ‘provoking’ Him, calling Him.
Jesus stepped forward before John the Baptist, not to manifest any Personal sinfulness, but simply His, by now most frustrating, human inability to do all that He wanted to do for His Father’s glory and His people’s salvation. He wanted above all to be one with His Father, no longer as a child ‘in His Father’s House’, but as a full-grown man to be ‘about His Father’s business’ and for that He chose to join all who were seeking to draw closer to God, as the supreme Seeker needing His Father’s blessing and His Spirit to do His work. And this need of Jesus’ was precisely His Father’s, lovingly provoking, CALL.
In that sense Jesus was the first fruits of all those who were then, are now, and ever will be, truly repentant; because Jesus was totally, shatteringly, aware of what none of us are ever sufficiently aware: that God alone is good and that we, mere human beings, can do nothing good or holy of ourselves. That failure to appreciate our natural nothingness leads ordinary sons and daughters of Adam into sins of all sorts; with Jesus it simply made Him long, with excruciating desire, for that ability to do the work of God which only the gift of the Spirit can impart (Mark 1:9-11):
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, He saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are My Son, Whom I love; with You I am well pleased."
The Father was indeed well pleased with His Son. He had sent originally His Son for the purpose of saving His People from their sins. The holiness of this Child had not separated, cut Him off, from men; for His growth in holiness had meant an ever-greater longing for God and an ever-deeper understanding of and sympathy with mankind. The Child had now become the Man His Father had planned, and so He called Him in the perfect fullness of His humanity to begin His public ministry by publicly taking over from John the Baptist. It was not John who would conduct this true baptism: John would indeed immerse Jesus, but it was the Father in heaven Who embraced His Son rising from the waters of the river Jordan, and Who would truly baptise Him by bestowing on Him the Gift of the most Holy Spirit to prepare and empower Him for the task immediately before Him: His imminent conquest of the devil in the desert and His subsequent Messianic proclamation and ushering-in of God’s salvation.
And so, Jesus stepped forward as the sinless leader of all those who are aware of their human needs and inadequacies, and in this He was and is at one with repentant sinners of all times: past, as well as present and future; for although He did not, indeed, could not, share their personal sins, sin being totally alien to Him, nevertheless, their human needs and their personal, godly, longings were to be found in Him, fully and sublimely transfigured. Coming up out of the waters where John had immersed Him, He was embraced by His heavenly Father and endowed with the Spirit, as the Messiah and Saviour of God’s People, or, as the Psalmist (19:5) puts it:
As a strong man rejoicing, and ready to run his course.
John had prepared the Chosen People for Him Who was to come, he had indeed prepared the way before the Lord; and here, at Jordan’s edge, the Father renewed His original gift of His Son by His messianic call and bestowal of the Spirit, so that Jesus could take up the baton for the final stage in God’s saving plan, as the prophet Micah (5:4) had foretold:
He will arise and shepherd His flock in the strength of the LORD, In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God.
People of God, Jesus the supreme and heavenly Shepherd still leads His flock into a full awareness and understanding of their earthly human weakness, don’t refuse to learn His teaching about that! But, as the only-begotten Son and Saviour, He also teaches His Church heavenly things with divine authority, and empowers her to walk with Him along His way, by granting her faithful children a share in His own most Holy Spirit. Thus, He gradually brings them to their glorious fulfilment in Him and with Him, as Children of God and co-heirs to eternal life, and today He invites us too to become ever more truly members of that glorious company!
Therefore, dear friends in Christ, let us truly rejoice in Jesus this day as He answers His Father’s call to step forward and take over from John, and bring to fulfilment the divine purpose of saving us from our sins. (2021)