Baptism of the Lord Isaiah 42:1–4, 6–7; Acts of the Apostles 10:34–38; Mark 1:7–11
Three Baptisms Jesus’ baptism begins a “new era” The new era is a “new creation.” Jesus is the “new Adam.”
Flannery O’Connor wrote a moving story called “The River.” One scene in the story is very similar to today’s gospel reading.
There’s a little boy named Bevel. His parents are so involved in social affairs that they often leave Bevel with an elderly baby-sitter.
One day the baby-sitter takes Bevel to the river, where a famous preacher is baptizing people. The baby-sitter presents Bevel to be baptized.
The preacher takes Bevel and, while saying the words of baptism, plunges him under the water. When he pulls Bevel up from the water, the preacher looks him straight in the eye and says, “Now you count, boy! Before, you didn’t even count.”
There’s one big difference between the preacher’s baptism of Bevel and John’s baptism of the people in the Jordan.
When the word baptism appears in the Gospel, it can mean one of three different baptisms.
First, it can mean John’s baptism with water.
John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. It was a sign that people repented their sins and wanted to wash them away.
John’s baptism was only the first step in a journey. It was only a sign. It was only a start. John made this perfectly clear when he said:
“I baptize you with water to show that you have repented, but the one who will come after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He is much greater than I am; and I am not good enough even to carry his sandals.” Matthew 3:11
In other words, John is saying that his baptism is only a preparation for another baptism to come. John’s baptism is only a sign that people want to begin a new life.
This brings us to the second baptism. It is Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit.
At the end of his life Jesus told his disciples:
“Go . . . to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 28:19
Jesus’ baptism is a baptism of rebirth. It communicates to people a whole new life. Commenting on this new life, Paul wrote to newly baptized Christians:
“When you were baptized, you were buried with Christ, and in baptism you were also raised with Christ. . . . You were at one time spiritually dead. . . . But God has now brought you to life with Christ.” Colossians 2:12–13
And so the baptism of Jesus communicates to people a share in his own life.
This brings us to the third baptism. It is John’s baptism of Jesus himself. Today’s gospel describes what took place when John baptized Jesus.
First, the sky opened. Second, the Spirit descended. Third, a voice from heaven said, “You are my own dear Son.” Mark 1:11
John’s baptism of Jesus is sometimes called a baptism of revelation. This is because its importance lies in what it reveals to us through the images of the sky, the Spirit, and the voice. Consider the image of the open sky.
In their imaginations ancient Jews pictures God as living somewhere above the sky. They imagined the sky to be a kind of barrier separating heaven and earth. If God wanted to come down to earth, he had to break through the barrier.
This explains Isaiah’s words when he asks God to save the world from sin. Isaiah says to God, “Tear the sky open and come down.” Isaiah 64:1
The image of the open sky suggests that God has heard the prophet’s prayer and is coming down to save the world. So a “new era” on earth is beginning.
This brings us to the second image: the image of the Spirit hovering over Jesus and the water. This image is almost identical with the image the Book of Genesis uses to describe the start of creation. Genesis says, “God’s spirit hovered over the water.” (JB)
And so the image of the Spirit suggests that the new era is to be a “new creation” or “re-creation” of the world.
Finally, there is the third image: the voice from heaven, saying, “You are my own dear Son.” Mark 1:11 These words of God the Father identify Jesus as his Son. Jesus is the “new Adam” of the new creation. Paul compares Jesus and Adam this way:
“ ‘The first man, Adam, was created a living being’; but the last Adam [Jesus] is the life-giving Spirit. . . .
“The first Adam . . . came from the earth; the second Adam came from heaven. . . .
“Just as we wear the likeness of the man made of earth [the first Adam], so we will wear the likeness of the Man from heaven [the second Adam, Jesus].” 1 Corinthians 15:45–49
And so the baptism of Jesus is a baptism of revelation. It reveals a “new era” that is just beginning. This new era is to be a “new creation” of the world in which Jesus is the “new Adam.”
This brings us to a final point. It is the most important point of all for us in this church.
The new creation that began with John’s baptism of Jesus became a personal reality for each one of us at our own baptism.
When we were baptized, in a very true sense, the sky opened above us, the Spirit of God descended upon us, and a voice said to us, “You are my son; today I have become your father.” Psalm 2:7
Recall how Paul described our baptism:
“When you were baptized, you were buried with Christ, and in baptism you were also raised with Christ. . . . You were at one time spiritually dead because of your sins. . . . But God has now brought you to life with Christ.” Colossians 2:12–13
Paul concludes, saying:
“You have been raised to life with Christ, so set your hearts on the things that are in heaven. . . . Keep your minds fixed on things there, not on things here on earth. . . .
“Your real life is Christ and when he appears, then you too will appear with him and share his glory!” Colossians 3:4
Series II Baptism of the Lord Isaiah 42:1–4, 6–7; Acts of the Apostles 10:34–38; Mark 1:7–11
Collective Responsibility We must assume responsibility for the actions of the society of which we are a part.
You’d hardly expect the dean of American psychiatry to stand up and talk about sin. But that’s what Dr. Karl Menninger does in his book Whatever Became of Sin?
Dr. Menninger is deeply troubled by individuals who won’t admit to their personal sins. He’s even more troubled by their refusal to admit to their social sins.
What does Menninger mean by a social sin? He means a sin committed by society. He means a sin committed by groups of people or even nations.
Here are some examples: citywide disregard of the poor, nationwide stockpiling of military hardware, planetwide destruction of the environment.
The frightening thing about these social sins is that single individuals, like you and me, don’t consider themselves responsible for them. We don’t see ourselves as guilty of them. And so we wash our hands of them.
How different was the attitude of Jesus when it came to accepting responsibility for social sins.
To learn what Jesus’ attitude was, we need only turn to today’s gospel and ask ourselves this question: Why did Jesus step into the Jordan River to be baptized by John?
John had the same question in mind when he saw Jesus step down into the water. Matthew says that when Jesus presented himself for baptism, “John tried to make him change his mind. ‘I ought to be baptized by you,’ John said, ‘and yet you have come to me!’ ” Matthew 3:14
Why, then, did Jesus step into the Jordan River to be baptized by John? For John had made it clear that his baptism was for sinners only. It was for those who had turned their back on God.
If Jesus had not done this, why did he present himself for baptism?
This brings us back to Dr. Menninger’s point about social sins, that is, sins committed by groups or nations.
By being born into our world, Jesus identified himself with the human race. He became a member of a sinful world of people, a world of people of whom the psalmist said, “But they have all gone wrong; they are all equally bad. Not one of them does what is right, not a single one.” Psalm 14:3
And that’s why Jesus stepped into the river to be baptized by John.
It was not because he, personally, was a sinner and needed conversion. Rather, it was because he was a member of the sinful human race, which needed conversion. It was for this reason that he stepped into the river to be baptized.
It was to acknowledge that he had identified himself with the human race so totally that he could not stand apart from it— not even from its sins.
It was to acknowledge that the human race, of which he was a part, needed to admit that it had sinned and needed conversion. This is why Jesus stepped into the Jordan to be baptized by John.
This brings us to the practical application that all this has for our personal lives. What does it say to us in this church today?
First of all, it says that, like Jesus, we are all members of the human race.
Second, it says that, like Jesus, we must all be responsible members of the human race. We cannot say to ourselves, “I don’t approve of some of the things the human race is doing, but I’m not responsible for them.’’
Citywide disregard of the poor to the point that basic human rights are ignored and trampled upon—this is something we can’t stand apart from. We must take responsibility for it, for we are citizens of the city.
Nationwide stockpiling of military hardware to the point that global extinction of the human race is a serious possibility—this is something we can’t stand apart from. We must take responsibility for it, for we are citizens of the nation.
Planetwide destruction of the environment to the point that the ozone layer of our planet is being destroyed—this is something we can’t stand apart from. We must take responsibility for it, for we are citizens of the planet.
This raises a big question. What can we, personally, do about these sins? We can do three things at least.
First, we can acknowledge that these sins and situations do exist. We can resist the temptation to bury our head in the sand and to pretend that these sins are not real or, worse yet, that they will go away by themselves.
Acknowledging these sinful situations and facing up to them honestly is something we can all do—something we must do. It’s a necessary starting point.
Second, we can speak out against social sins. It’s not only our right but our duty.
Third, we can all pray to God for special guidance in dealing with these situations.
For they are situations that need all the guidance we can get. They are complex situations. They are not black and white situations that admit of black and white solutions.
The example of Jesus in today’s gospel is a call to action to all of us.
It’s a call to recognize that we are all members of the human race—as Jesus was.
It’s a call to acknowledge our responsibility when it comes to social sins—as Jesus did.
It’s a call to do something concrete, whether it be speaking out against these situations, praying for guidance, or becoming directly involved in their solution.
If we, the members of Christ’s Body, don’t do something, who will? This is the call that today’s gospel makes to us.
It’s a call we must ponder prayerfully. It’s a call we must all respond to in some concrete way.
Series III Baptism of the Lord Isaiah 55:1–11, Acts of the Apostles 2:34–38, Mark 1:7–11
Jesus, the Way We must imitate Jesus and follow his example.
Jesus came from Nazareth in the province of Galilee, and was baptized by John. Mark 1:9
Some years ago, Joel Weldon developed a program designed to help people develop their full potential. It was much in demand, because experts claim we use only a fraction of our potential, perhaps as little as 10 percent.
One of the talks in the program was entitled “The Chinese Bamboo Tree.” In it he explains that, once planted, this particular bamboo tree seed takes five years to sprout. But, once it sprouts, it literally explodes—growing 90 feet tall in six weeks.
Weldon explains that during the five years of apparent inactivity, the bamboo seed, in reality, has been working hard, putting down an elaborate system of roots. It is this incredible root system that makes the plant grow so explosively in such a short time. That story helps us understand one of the two reasons why Jesus waited 30 years to begin his ministry.
He was putting down an elaborate system of spiritual roots, so to speak. That is, he was preparing spiritually for the mission his Father gave him. Here we need to keep in mind something we often forget.
Jesus possessed a human nature—just as we do. Therefore, he grew and developed slowly “in body and in wisdom”—as we do. Luke 2:52
He also had to struggle in pain to develop his mind and body—as we do.
That brings us to the second reason why Jesus waited 30 years before beginning his public ministry. The Scottish theologian William Barclay explains why.
He begins by noting that Jews practiced baptism only for converts to Judaism. He writes, and I quote:
No Jew ever conceived that he, a member of God’s chosen people . . .could ever need baptism. Baptism was for sinners, and no Jew ever conceived of himself as a sinner shut off from God.
Now for the first time in their national history, the Jews realized their own sin and . . . need for God. Never before had there been such a unique national movement of penitence and of search for God.
This was the moment for which Jesus had been waiting. Jews were conscious of their sin and conscious of their need for God [in the sense that they were, indeed, shut off from God by sin]. The Gospel of Saint Matthew, Vol. 1
And so the second reason why Jesus waited so long to begin his ministry was that the people were not ready for it. They needed someone like John the Baptist to seize the national mood of repentance and channel it into sincere and genuine repentance. When Jesus saw this taking place, he rejoiced.
Jesus also demonstrated solidarity with the people he had come to redeem by going down to the Jordan River and presenting himself for baptism.
When he stepped out of the water, something remarkable happened: the sky opened, the Spirit descended, and a heavenly voice said, “You are my Son.”
To understand the meaning of these three images—especially the sky opening up—we need to recall that after Adam’s sin the world became more and more evil with each passing year.
Good Jews pleaded with God to come down and set things right. Thus, the prophet Isaiah prayed to God in these blunt words: “Why don’t you tear the sky open and come down?” Isaiah 64:1
The opening of the sky, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the voice from heaven—these were dramatic signs. They dramatized that God, in the person of Jesus, had come down from heaven to set things right. This brings us to the application of all this to our personal lives.
Just as Jesus spent long periods in prayer, preparing for the important mission that his heavenly Father gave him, so we need to pray for the grace to carry out the mission God has given us. We sometimes forget that we each have received a mission from God. Just as Jesus’ baptism inaugurated his mission, so our baptism inaugurated our own mission.
Reflecting on that remarkable fact, Cardinal Newman writes:
God has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission—I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. . . .
[Therefore] I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him. . . .[God] does nothing in vain. . . .
O my God, I put myself without reserve into your hands.
And so an application of today’s Gospel to our own lives is to recall and take seriously the fact that:
God has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission—I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.
And the way I carry out my mission is to look at my present life in whatever state of life I may be and strive to live it in a loving, caring, gentle way, as Jesus himself did.
To do this, however, I need to spend time in prayer each day, as Jesus did. I need to keep in touch with Jesus, who alone can help me carry out my mission faithfully, as he carried out his.
This is the message of today’s feast. It is a message that Jesus wants us to take to heart, beginning today, right now, at this Mass.
Let us close with an excerpt from a beautiful 17th-century prayer, quoted in the 19th-century writings of Cardinal Newman. It reads:
Into Your hands I commit myself and all who are dear to me. Watch over us with Your loving care while we sleep and bring us safely to another day, refreshed and ready for Your service.
Support us, O Lord, all days of this earthly life, till the shadows lengthen, the evening comes, and our work is done.
Then in Your mercy, give us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at last.