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JANUARY 10, 2010: THE BAPTISM OF JESUS

Readings: 

Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7
Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Though today’s feast commemorates Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptizer, our sacred authors can’t speak about that event without hooking it up with our own baptisms.

John wasn’t a Christian in our sense of the term. He was an Essene: a member of a community of Jews who had gone out into the Judean wilderness during the century before Jesus’ birth to prepare themselves for Yahweh’s arrival. Since the late 1940s, we’ve known their “Teacher of Righteousness,” having lost a bid for leadership in Jerusalem, led them out to the Dead Sea, to a place call Qumran. There they studied and copied Scripture, reflected on their wilderness experience and often submitted themselves to a form of baptism to demonstrate their dedication and openness to Yahweh’s will. They expected Yahweh to eventually come down from heaven and right the wrong that had been inflicted upon them and their leader. Jesus wasn’t part of the Qumran community. But he almost certainly was a disciple of John, the most famous member of that group. The Baptizer fell back on his Qumran roots to preach a reform of Judaism; a ministry which eventually led to his death. Those faithful Jews, like Jesus, who also wished to demonstrate their dedication and openness to Yahweh, willingly stepped into the Jordan to receive John’s baptism.

Jesus’ act of being baptized by John later fueled a conflict between the followers of each reformer. Following the practice that a superior baptizes an inferior, John’s disciples claimed these upstart Christians were putting their faith in the wrong Messiah. John, not Jesus, had been Yahweh’s special anointed. That’s why, when one reads the gospels chronologically, less and less is said of Jesus’ baptism. Mark describes it in detail, Matthew’s John originally refuses to do it, Luke in today’s pericope refers to it only in a dependent clause, and John the Evangelist never mentions it.

Notice in our Lucan passage that the Holy Spirit’s appearance and the voice from heaven only take place after the baptism, while Jesus is praying. Luke’s obviously distancing Jesus’ call from his baptism.

In my 45 years of priestly ministry I’ve only encountered one student who believed John, not Jesus, was the Messiah. So we really don’t have to face the problem our gospel writers encountered. We look at Jesus’ baptism as he himself did, and try to imitate his dedication and openness to God.

But we also understand that our own baptism contains a dedication and openness to Jesus and to “the Holy Spirit and fire” which inspired him. The author of the letter to Titus clearly states that thesis: “He (God) saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior. . .

Deutero-Isaiah wasn’t talking about Jesus in the initial verses of his “book” - the verses which comprise our first reading. Yet his overwhelming joy at Yahweh bringing freedom to exiled Israelites should mirror our own joy when we reflect on the difference the presence of Jesus makes in our lives. “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly. . . and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated . . . . Fear not to cry out and say .. . Here is your God!”

Though most of us were baptized as infants, every time we receive from the Eucharistic cup we’re publicly declaring our commitment to carry on Jesus’ ministry of dedication and openness to God. I pray this unique commitment will make our presence in the community just as joyful an experience for others as Jesus’ presence was and is.