The Christmas Season concludes this Sunday as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. The baptism marks a transition between Jesus’ private years and his public ministry. The celebration of the Incarnation and Nativity of the Lord marks God’s unique presence among us in Christ Jesus. This continues in the public ministry that will now unfold following the baptism.
In Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John we see, once again, the humility of Jesus we recognized at Christmas. As the eternal Word of God, the Son of the Father, and Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus’ humility is first seen as he takes on a human body. The One who lives eternally takes on time and lives among us, as one of us.
Now Jesus, the one who has no sin, no need for repentance, humbles himself to be baptized. In his baptism he foreshadows Christian baptism, which will be the means of being incorporated into his Body and sharing his Life.
John the Baptist likewise shows humility before the Lord, saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John knows his place in the scheme of salvation. He clearly acknowledges the authority and position of Jesus. The humility of Christ is brought again into relief in this interchange between John and Jesus. John clearly recognizes that Jesus is the “one mightier” yet Jesus comes to John for baptism.
The significance of Jesus’ baptism is highlighted as “heaven was opened” and “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form.” Among all those baptized, Jesus is signaled out by God the Father. The Father’s presence is clearly indicated in this scene as the voice comes from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
The Father is blessing the Son, his Son. In a particular way the Son, in his very person, represents his mission. This is the mission of love, the mission of mercy, the mission of salvation. As the Gospel continues, Jesus will invite those he encounters to believe in him, to know his Father and to share in the divine life of the Holy Trinity.
The mission of Jesus is represented in the reading from Isaiah in Sunday’s liturgy (there are two choices for the first reading for today’s liturgy both from Isaiah, the references here are to the first choice, Isaiah 42:1-4,6-7). The words have a direct correlation to the account of the baptism.
The Lord, using Isaiah as his spokesperson, says: “Here is my servant in whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am well pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit.” As the passage unfolds we hear a “preview,” so to speak, of Jesus’ mission. He will bring forth “justice to the nations.” He will be a teacher whose teachings are longed for by many people. His instructions will be on divine justice whereby mercy heals the wounds inflicted by sin.
The Son will be set as “a covenant of the people” and a “light for the nations.” Through him the “eyes of the blind” will be opened, prisoners will be set free and those dwelling in darkness will see light.
The early church remembered the Baptism of Jesus as the inauguration of the Day of Salvation. In Peter’s speech at the house of Cornelius, he says: “You know the word that he [God, the Father] sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all, what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached, how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.” His salvific mission is reflected in his “doing good” and “healing all those oppressed by the devil.”
Salvation brings healing. The Father initiates this healing in sending his Son. Jesus brings about salvation by emptying himself in love for the Father and for us by accepting this mission and making it known to us.
The passage from the Letter to Titus, which serves as the second reading for today’s liturgy, recalls that the mission of Jesus was to lay down his life for us. This is where his obedience to the Father, his humility and his mercy reach their culmination. Jesus gives himself “for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good.”
Paul goes on to speak of God’s incredible mercy and the life we share in Christ through baptism: “When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs of eternal life.”
The baptism of Jesus opens the door to the public ministry where we encounter him as the living proclamation of God’s mercy. As we remember Jesus’ baptism today we also remember our own baptism. It is in our baptism that we are enveloped in God’s mercy. In union with Christ in his death, represented at baptism, we are promised a share in his life — life as sons and daughters of one heavenly Father.
In the week ahead we might reflect on our baptism, the life that we share in Christ, the mercy which has been poured out on us in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, the promises we made at baptism, our commitment to following the way of Jesus as we live this life, the desire we have to choose good, to share mercy, and to love others.
As Jesus humbled himself in love, we too are called to be humble before God and each other.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.