Eighth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Feast of the Lord’s Baptism
Readings: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
On Christmas Day we recalled the Incarnation of the God of Israel among His chosen people, which enabled all humanity to become adopted children of God. At the Feast of the Epiphany we recalled the consequences of this adoption, that the salvation promised to and accomplished among the Jewish people is meant for all nations and all peoples who choose to accept it. And now, today’s feast – the last day of the Christmas season – brings this great revelation of God’s own Self to a climax, as we recall the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry by submitting to the baptism offered by His cousin John.
Ritual baths and cleansings, like the Sacrament of Baptism that we know and take for granted, were not an unknown thing at the time of Jesus. Jewish law and tradition involved several types of cleansings, both of people and of things. But a bath that offered “forgiveness of sins” was quite different, and quite scandalous. As we are reminded many times in the Bible, only God has the power to forgive sins, only God could bring lasting salvation to His people. The rituals and liturgies of the holiest feasts of the year reinforced that idea: the Passover meal commemorates the wondrous events surrounding the Exodus from Egypt, and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) involved an annual sacrifice whose blood was offered in the divine presence to remove the people’s sins. From time immemorial, and to the present day, there is no deliverance without the intervention of God.
No wonder then, as our Gospel reading tell us, the people were “filled with expectation.” Might John be the long-awaited Messiah, the one who will bring God’s deliverance to His long-suffering servant Israel? The First Reading, taken from that part of the Book of Isaiah set down during the time of the exile, speaks of this deliverance, this redemption: how the holy One of Israel will come to uphold His servant and place His Spirit upon him, a Spirit that will orient him more fully towards His God. It is this liberated servant who will become “a covenant for the peoples, a light to the nations,” the attractive force that will pull the rest of the world towards God. Perhaps this strange man living in the wilderness and preaching repentance – perhaps he’s the one, the people thought. But no! When asked he speaks of one to come after him, one greater in worth and dignity, who will bring a new kind of cleansing “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And then here comes Jesus Himself to be baptized, and on emerging from the water the Spirit of God comes to rest upon Him, “in bodily form like a dove.” And a voice from the sky proclaims Him “beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased.”
For all their differences in content and style and presentation, all four Gospels attest to this event. And in their own ways, they all confirm that this event had to happen in order to demonstrate that the Old Testament prophecies were being fulfilled in Him. As fully God, both the Father and the Holy Spirit already dwelled within Him. But as fully Man among men, His brethren had to see it and to hear it before they could understand it. That idea itself is a great merciful gift of the Incarnation mystery: God gave Himself to us, and draws us to Himself, in way we can physically perceive and cognitively understand. The manifestation is for our benefit, not His. And in this supernatural manifestation He shows us that the long-awaited promise is about to be fulfilled. The holy One of Israel has entered time and space as an Israelite; the God-Man is both liberator and servant.
All these things began to become known to the world some years later – and continue to be made known to us in our day – through Jesus’ Apostles, who themselves needed it explained to them by their Master after He had accomplished His task, so they could see the whole picture. And they spent the rest of their lives coming to terms with it, telling all people about it, spreading that message to all corners of the world, and (with one lone exception) dying horrible deaths in witness to it. We get a glimpse of this coming-to-terms in the Second Reading, taken from the Acts of the Apostles, as Saint Peter ponders the ramifications of a vision he has been granted. For what was probably the first time in the chronological sequence of events in that first century A.D., a disciple of Christ – the first and foremost of them – gave voice from his own understanding to the mystical reality that had been unfolding in that small corner of the world: “God shows no partiality.”
Peter’s vision reveals to him the great mercy that underlines the old prophecies that can seem so severe, whereby all nations will gravitate towards worship of the holy One of Israel. He can begin to see the real meaning of that predestination that is not imposed upon our freedom of will. It was already said that the sun shines upon both the good and the bad, and that the rain falls upon both the just and the unjust. And the people already trusted that someday all peoples would worship God, once He had freed His servant Israel from enslavement to the national and cultural other worldly influences hemming them in. But the ever-widening and ever-deepening mystery of the Incarnation, revealed to the public in the events of today’s feast, is the lens through which Peter can now see his vision and hear the words of His Master and understand the prophecies: “[I]n every nation, whoever fears Him and acts uprightly is acceptable to Him.” The choice to seek the Lord where He may be found is ours to make, and is always ours through the all-powerful God’s head-scratchingly ponderous generosity, but through the Incarnation that choice is now open not just to certain people or to a certain nation but to everyone. Everyone!
That means you! And me! Them too! That guy you walked past at the market! That woman who didn’t apologize when she stepped on your foot! That group of vagrants collecting money on the street! Those two people on the news who shot up a building! Your mother and father! Your kids, including the one inside you! That old cranky woman second door from the left in the nursing home who has no one to visit her; the middle-aged man in the next room with no mind left; his partner who visits him every morning and evening! The persons most and least on your mind as you read this! Everyone!
It has been said by Church Fathers over the centuries that when the sinless Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan to be baptized, the act of His baptism made its waters – and by extension, all water – holy. In that way, His Baptism could be called His first miracle: through this purification, not of Him but of the living waters He bathed in, He gave us the first of His blessed guarantees (Latin, sacramenta) that He will uphold us, that He will help us to act uprightly, that He will give us the power to live in a way that is acceptable to Him because it is fitting for those who choose to be brothers and sisters of the perfect Man. In Jesus, earth and heaven are joined; in Jesus, liberator and servant become one; in Jesus, the profane becomes holy, the sinner becomes a saint, the stranger becomes a sibling.
Being “merciful like the Father” means to show no partiality. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself – because His coming in the flesh makes us all equal in worth and dignity and love through Him.
And ‘til this holy season comes ‘round again next December, I say one more time: Merry Christmas!