“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” the Baptist says at the end of his reply to those asking if he were the Christ. He emphatically had responded that he is not the Christ and that he is not even worthy to untie his sandals.
John’s baptism is, like his entire ministry, one that prepared for the coming of Jesus. Jesus is the “one coming after me (John).” When all is accomplished, he is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire.
This Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. The feast concludes our observation of Christmas and transitions us back to Ordinary Time. The feast recalls Jesus’ baptism in the desert as recounted in the Gospel passage, this year from St. Luke, as well as a reminder of our own baptism.
Jesus’ baptism is one that foreshadows ours. He undergoes the ritual washing as an example for us. The memory was vivid in the life of the early Church. Matthew’s account has John objecting when Jesus arrives for baptism saying: “I need to be baptized by you, and you are coming to me?” Jesus responds: “Allow it for now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Reflecting on Jesus’ baptism, St. Maximus of Turin writes: “Someone might ask, ‘Why would a holy man (Jesus) desire baptism?’ Listen to the answer: Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water. For when the Savior is washed, all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. Christ is the first to be baptized, then, so that Christians will follow after him in confidence.”
After the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove, the voice of the heavenly Father is heard: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The words call to mind the Isaian passage used for the first reading in today’s liturgy. “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit.”
The reading continues to describe the mission of Jesus. He will establish justice. He comes not with loud voice or strong arm but as a man gentle and meek. He is the one who is “set as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations,” who will “open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”
The words also echo Jesus’ own understanding. In the beginning of the public ministry in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is in the synagogue and proclaims the Isaian passage: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).
After this he says: “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Baptism is linked to Jesus’ mission. The Father sends Jesus to establish justice and freedom. When all is accomplished, baptism will be the means by which this justice and freedom are experienced.
The two options for the second reading highlight this celebration. The first, from Acts of the Apostles, recalls Peter’s preaching in the house of Cornelius. In the reading he recalls Jesus’ mission “beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached, how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.” After Peter’s proclamation (but not included in this passage), Cornelius and his household all were baptized.
The second choice comes from the Letter of Titus. The reading reflects the cleansing nature of baptism. It is washing away of sin so that the Holy Spirit might be given. He writes: “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 our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”
The celebration of Jesus’ baptism reminds us of the great gift of grace shared with us in baptism. His baptism points to our baptism whereby we are washed clean, filled with the Holy Spirit and fortified to live the life of love, now and for eternity.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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