The feast of the Baptism of the Lord brings to an end the Christmas season. That the Baptism of Jesus was historical is doubted by almost no one today. The reasons for this are not merely because it is an event that is narrated by all the Synoptic Gospels, but mainly because despite the fact that Matthew and Luke are struggling to narrate the event of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, they do narrate it in their Gospels. While Mark states quite unambiguously that Jesus was baptized by John in the
(Mk. 1:9); Luke will have John the Baptist in prison (Lk.3:19) before the baptism of Jesus (Lk.3:21) and does not state explicitly who baptized Jesus. Matthew is careful not to have John the Baptist preach a baptism for the “forgiveness of sins” and alone adds a dialogue between Jesus and John to stress both Jesus’ superiority and that John baptized Jesus only after Jesus allowed him to do so and in order “to fulfill all righteousness”. Jordan
The three events that occurred at the baptism of Jesus are mentioned by all three Synoptic Gospels but with some differences. In Matthew “the heavens were opened”, which could be an indication that communication between God and humans is being reestablished in a new way. Others see it as referring to the prayer of Isaiah for God to “rend the heavens and come down” (Is 64:1). The splitting of the heavens enables the Spirit of God to come down, and descend on Jesus like a dove. This could mean either an approval of the event by God through his Spirit or even that in Jesus the whole people of God as represented by the Spirit are being anointed. The third event is the climax and gives the meaning to the other two and to the baptism itself. Unlike in Mark and Luke where the voice addresses Jesus, in Matthew, the voice speaks in the third person and so reveals to the listeners that Jesus is both beloved Son and servant. This revelation brings out the paradox of the event. On the one hand Jesus is manifested as the beloved Son and king through the quotation of Ps 2:7 (This is my beloved Son)while on the other hand he is also manifested as servant and slave in the same event through the quotation from Is. 42:1 (with whom I am well pleased). As a matter of fact, it is through his being slave and servant, through his passion and death on the cross and through his coming up out of the waters of death that he becomes king and beloved son.
This paradoxical manifestation then is the focus of the readings and of the Baptism. The mysterious prophetic figure that Isaiah speaks about in the first reading of today in the first of the four servant songs is clearly in Matthew, Jesus himself. He will fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah in every single aspect. He will bring forth God’s justice to all and in an unobtrusive quiet way. He will make the broken whole. His manner will be gentle, and he will be respectful of others especially the weak and will not give in to discouragement or despair. He will accomplish his mission.
This manner of Jesus is what Peter highlights in his speech to Cornelius and his household in which he summarizes Jesus’ life and mission. Jesus, God’s anointed, “went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed”.
This is also the paradox that we who are baptized are faced with. On the one hand we are privileged through baptism to be called God’s chosen people, a people set apart and sealed with his Holy Spirit, but on the one hand we are also called to show forth this fact in our lives through our imitation of Christ. We are given through our baptism a mission by God himself, just as Jesus received. Seen in this manner, our baptism is not merely an event that occurred years ago and once for all but is a daily dying and rising to new life. It is a call to respond daily with life to the numerous deaths that take place around us. It is a call to respond with courage and hope to the fear and despair that is around us. It is a doing something everyday as a sign of what we have already received.
Yet it is also true that for many of us the sacrament of baptism that we received is just another theoretical expression of our faith. We do not live this out in our lives. This is possibly why after the Baptism of his baby brother in church, little Johnny sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, the boy replied, "That priest said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you.”
John F Kennedy’s famous saying can be amended to read, “Ask not what your Church can do for you; rather, ask what you must do for your Church.”