To read the texts click on the texts: Isa 42:1-4,6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Mk 1:7-11
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 Jordan (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 fulfil all righteousness”.
Though there are differences in the first part of their narration, all three evangelists agree about the three events that took place at Jesus’ baptism. The first was that the “heavens were torn open”, the second was that Jesus is the only one who sees the heavens torn open and the Spirit descend, and only he hears the divine voice. The heavens’ being torn’ open reflects a metaphor for the coming of God into human history to deliver his people. It reflects the prayer of Isaiah to God to repeat for one last time the great redemptive acts for his people. The dove imagery symbolizes the creative activity of the Spirit of God and also the coming of the Spirit for empowerment. Jesus is empowered and his unique status is confirmed by the Spirit which comes down from heaven. The climax, however, is what the voice from heaven says. It is clear that in Mark Jesus receives an invitation from God. This invitation is through the combination of two Old Testament texts. The first of these is Ps. 2:7 which says “You are my beloved Son” and the second is from Isa 42:1 which says “in you my soul delights”. Ps.2 is a coronation Psalm originally referring to the Davidic king. It was sung when the king was being placed on his throne and so has to do with coronation, sonship and kingship. It has to do with glory and power. Isa 42 is the first of the four suffering servant songs in the second book of Isaiah and so has to do with the crowning with thorns, with being servant and slave. This means that the voice invites Jesus to be King and Servant, to be Servant king and clearly in Mark to be King who becomes king by being servant.
That this is clearly Mark’s intention is confirmed by many indicators in his Gospel. Of these one stands out. This is the indicator given my Mark after the death of Jesus.
After the death of Jesus on the Cross, two incidents occur. The first is that the inner veil separating the holy of holies from the rest of the sanctuary is torn open, much like the heavens were torn open at the baptism. This might be intended to reveal that God is no longer present in the sanctuary or that now there is open access to God’s presence. It might also be that the torn veil foreshadowed the destruction of the Temple. While these interpretations are reasonable, it seems most likely, however, that Mark meant that true worship is now no longer in the Temple but on the Cross. The second incident that occurs after the death of Jesus is the Centurion’s confession. While at the baptism of Jesus it was the heavenly voice that called him “beloved Son”, here it is a human voice, the voice of a Gentile who calls Jesus “Son of God”. Jesus “becomes” Son of God and King on the Cross, when his arms are opened out in total surrender to the will of God. He accepted the invitation from God and responded to it wholeheartedly.
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 Mark, Jesus himself. He will fulfil 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”.
Thus the feast of the Baptism of the Lord which begins the Ordinary time of the year is a feast which issues an invitation to each of us who are willing to hear. This means that a believer in Jesus is willing to accept that pain is part of the human condition. That joy can be found even in the midst of pain, happiness can be found even in the midst of sorrow and hope is present even in seeming despair.