Baptism of Jesus, First Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Mt 3:13-17]

Imagine Jesus leaving his home, leaving his mother and relations behind in Galilee, and setting out virtually unknown and alone, walking along the Jordan river in search of John the Baptist. Jesus is about to begin his public ministry. Somewhere on the river banks John is preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. “Repent,” he says, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Prepare the way of the Lord.

Many people from Jerusalem and throughout Judea believe John’s prophetic words. He has awakened in the people a powerful sense of expectation, a desire to be ready for the coming Messiah who will use a winnowing fork to gather the wheat into his granary and burn the chaff with fire.

While John is preaching, Jesus draws near and stands among the people. He hears John cry out: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance. … For even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees…“. Several centuries earlier the prophet Malachi had written: “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come…but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

Then an astonishing thing happens. Jesus, the Lord, appears before John and asks to be baptized. Jesus stands among the brood of vipers, not with winnowing fork and axe, but with humility, identifying with the people. John knows that his cousin, Jesus, is more righteous than himself, but he does not yet know that Jesus is the Lord. John says to him, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” When Jesus insists, John baptizes him. Then the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove. A voice comes from heaven saying “Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.” John is overwhelmed by this revelation. His own cousin is the Lord, the Messiah. Twice in St. John’s gospel the Baptist proclaims: “I myself did not know him! I did not know him. But for this I came that he might be revealed to Israel.

The prophecies of John about the Messiah coming with fire, winnowing fork, and axe did not come true in the way and at the time he expected. Later on, from prison, John would send disciples to Jesus asking him, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” What would John have felt and thought had he lived to witness the horrible crucifixion of the Messiah? The fulfillment of prophecy is often very different from what is expected, even from what the prophets themselves expected.

St. Luke helps us to understand the mission of the Messiah and the prophetic action of Christ’s baptism by two events that followed it: his Transfiguration and Crucifixion. At the Transfiguration the same voice which Jesus and John the Baptist heard, says again “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him.” And at the Crucifixion the rulers scoff at Jesus saying, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One.” In Luke’s gospel Christ comes not with fire, axe and winnowing fork, but with the water of baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and his own blood shed by crucifixion.

Christ was baptized with water so that we would desire to be baptized. Christ was Transfigured to show us the destiny to which baptism elevates us, because baptism makes us partakers of the divine nature by power of the Holy Spirit. It makes us beloved children of God, adopted into God’s own level of existence. Christian baptism washes away our sins and gives us the fullness of life. We become transformed, chosen to enter into relationship with the three divine Persons, to share their nature. This mystery, this gift of God, continuously amazes me.

Christ’s death and resurrection were prefigured by his baptism. First he was buried in the waters of the Jordan by immersion, thus foreshadowing his descent into death after crucifixion; then he rose from the waters and was revealed by the Father as his Beloved Son, thus foretelling the resurrection. So also, our baptism is an immersion in Christ’s own death, a death to our sins, and it is a rising from the waters into Christ’s own divine life, his resurrection.

The baptismal font has been described by the Second Vatican Council as the womb of the Church, (Missions, 15). In our mother’s womb we received the gift of human life. In the womb of the baptismal font we receive the gift of divine life. Christ’s baptism in the Jordan means that he has made water a sacramental womb in which we receive the Holy Spirit who transforms us by grafting us into Christ’s divine nature. This is the fruit of his blood shed for us at his crucifixion, when he suffered for us, taking the punishment of our sins upon himself.

Now Christ offers us himself as the bread of life to nourish and sustain us in every wilderness and temptation along our journey to God. Let us rejoice in the gift of life which we are about to celebrate in the Eucharist.