Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Titus 2:11-14; 3:2-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
The baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the Baptist is recounted in some detail in Matthew, told more briefly in Mark, mentioned in detail in Luke, and unrecorded though probably presumed in John. In all four accounts the anointing of Jesus with the Spirit and the declaration of his sonship are directly linked to the baptism. Mark and Luke tell us only that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John, but Matthew adds that John the Baptist was hesitant and felt unworthy. Jesus, however, urges compliance with the call of God to “fulfil all righteousness.” Mark suggests that Jesus was baptized during the ministry of John to all the people, while the structure of the text in Luke indicates that the baptism of Jesus by John was the culmination of John’s ministry meaning that “after all the people had been baptized, then Jesus also was baptized. The Fourth Evangelist says only that John saw Jesus coming to him and then there follow certain Christological declarations by John. The fundamental feature of all the narratives is that on the occasion of his baptism Jesus is anointed with the Spirit and thus inaugurating the ministry of Jesus.
Today’s First Reading taken from the Book of Isaiah is one of the celebrated Servant Songs where the chosen servant suffers. The Gospel of Luke announced that when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, this was the event that marked the official beginning of the Lord’s ministry on earth in the presence of the Trinity. Even though he did not need to be baptised, Jesus identifies himself with the sinful human race and receives cleansing through Baptism. St Paul in the second reading tells us that the Lord has come to give us salvation and he gives us through the sign of Baptism. The Baptism of Jesus is the third of three great manifestations or revelations which characterise the Christmas season, the others being Christmas and the Epiphany.
Special significance is to be seen in the fact that Jesus submitted to the baptism of John, which was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John has called a sinful and self righteous people to turn quickly before an impending judgment descends. “Already the axe is laid to the root of the tree.” Matthew’s narrative focuses of the issue, for in it the Baptist attempts to protest the inappropriateness of Jesus coming to be baptized. The baptism of Jesus marks his solidarity as the messianic servant with his people. He takes upon himself by this cultic act their condition and their predicament. He becomes their representative. Coming to them and speaking to them he takes his place with them. Incarnation is not only coming to earth but also assuming the burden of life in the flesh. He not only speaks to them but also speaks for them. The Father’s Son becomes the intercessor to the Father. The significance of the baptism of Jesus is explained by Paul: “He who knew no sin became sin for us in order that in him we might become the righteousness of God”
The First Reading taken from the Book of Isaiah tells us that the promised Messiah would be God’s chosen Servant in Whom the Divine Soul would delight. The Messiah would have the Spirit of God upon Him, bringing forth justice to all the nations, not just God’s chosen people. This servant is filled with the Spirit of God and he goes about the mission in a way that distinguishes the servant from other prophets. As the Servant of God, the Messiah would not cry or lift up His voice or make it heard in the street. His mission would be modest and gentle in nature. He operates by his example and work and not by his word. The promised Messiah would not force the people to conform to His teaching. The transformation that would take place within those who heard the Word of God would be an inner one, a change of heart. He brings new life in them through his kindness and mercy. The Messiah would come to save the sinners, not those who are already saved. A dimly burning wick He would not quench. For there is always hope for souls when grace of God is at work. In the end, the promised Messiah would faithfully bring forth justice, not a worldly justice but a spiritual one. God assures the servant of the victory. He will give sight to the blind, free the captives and free those who are bound. His mission is summed up with the word justice and he will restore all nations to the right relationship with God.
St Paul in the second reading tells us that the Lord has come to give us salvation and he gives us through the sign of Baptism. Here St Paul tells us that the Lord comes to bring salvation and gives it to us through the sign of Baptism. His emphasis is grace indicated by the words like kindness, generosity, love, mercy and all these justified by grace. He gives completeness or wholeness to all and to help us leave behind all “worldly passions”, all those appetites and longings which are ultimately destructive and harmful to our proper destiny. Paul makes it clear that our baptism is linked with that of Jesus: “For when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” The Word became flesh so that we could be liberated from the sinful inclinations of the flesh. His baptism provides the basis of our own baptism.
Luke refers to the baptism of Jesus by John but does not record the event. For Luke the history is divided into three parts. The first part is the time of Israel, the second is time of Jesus and the third is the time of the church. John belongs to the first part, Jesus to the second and he himself leads us to the third by the baptism. Then the voice comes from heaven asking all to listen to the Son who will speak to us continuously. It also happens that at the baptism the spirit comes down and the Trinity meets. This is followed by the prayer and public ministry where he is led by the spirit.
The Gospel of today tells us that Jesus was baptised. We may ask why Jesus needed to be baptised. Most of those coming to John the Baptist were repentant sinners. It should be noted that Jesus did not get baptized because He needed to repent of His sins. Being God, He was without sin! He was baptized because from the moment of His birth to the moment when He began His ministry on earth, Jesus completely submitted Himself in obedience to the customs of His people. By submitting Himself to the Baptism of John the Baptist, He placed His seal of approval that we all need to repent of our sins. But there was more to it then could be perceived at that time. Jesus’ example of being baptized was to tell us that the Sacrament of Baptism is the Way to the new life, to being born again of water and spirit.
Gospel tells us that Jesus is the Way, and the truth and the life. As John the Baptist was commissioned to prepare the Way of the Lord, we as baptized and confirmed Christians have been called by God and sent to preach the Good News to all those with who we come in contact during our life. For the glory of God, our commission obligates us to show the Way to those who have yet to find the Lord Jesus in their lives. The “Way” is a manner of life, for men and for God. There can be two ways, either good or evil. John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness to prepare “the way of the Lord.” Jesus declared that He Himself was that Way. Christianity itself is called “the Way.” Through this prophecy, Jerusalem was highly glorified. It was hailed as the home of God on earth and the centre of world redemption. Jerusalem was called the herald of glad tidings.
Despite his dignity and rank as Son of God, as Messiah, Jesus never did require any external signs of privilege. When he got up in the synagogue of his home town and began to amaze people with his insight, his neighbours could not understand it. They had lived for years with him and had no idea of the divinity hidden in his person. Secondly, Luke says significantly that Jesus was at prayer when his baptism took place. They also hear the voice from heaven, clearly that of the Father, says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.” For Jesus it is a special moment when his mission becomes clear to him. It was the moment of discernment. In this special experience he knows what he has to do and what awaits him in the fulfilment of his call. So, through his baptism, Jesus is being officially commissioned to begin his public work of teaching, healing and liberating enslaved souls up to the climactic moment of his passion, death and resurrection. This feast of Baptism is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on our own baptism. It is not something which happened a long time and which “made” us Catholics. It is essentially a community experience; it is not just a private or a family event although in the way it was “celebrated” it may have looked like that. Each one of us is called to be a living witness to the Gospel: to be the salt of the earth and light to the world.
Fr Eugene Lobo SJ Rome