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JANUARY 11, 2009: THE BAPTISM OF JESUS

Readings: 

Isaiah 55:1-11
I John 5:1-9
Mark 1:7-11

Mark, Matthew and Luke narrate Jesus’ baptism differently. (John, the Evangelist, doesn’t even refer to the event.) Part of the differences (or omission) can be explained by eventual tensions between Jesus’ followers and those of John the Baptizer. But Mark mentions something unique, something which creates problems for some Christians. Only Mark has the heavenly voice speak to Jesus.

When I ask my students what the Marcan voice from heaven says when Jesus comes up from the river, most quote Matthew’s voice: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” They presume, like Matthew, that those standing along the Jordan shore need to know the Galilean carpenter’s real identity.

Listen carefully to Mark’s voice. It announces, “You are my beloved Son; with I am well pleased.” Jesus, not John and the bystanders, is the recipient of this divine message. Why does Jesus need to be told about something we Christians believe he already knows?

Mark starts a pattern of annunciations which both Matthew and Luke copy. Matthew begins his infancy narrative with an annunciation to Joseph; Luke follows suit with an annunciation to Mary. Many of us overlook that Mark begins these annunciation narratives with a divine announcement to Jesus.

We forget that of all Christian biblical authors, only John speaks about Jesus pre-existing as God before coming on earth to begin his human existence. Raymond Brown often pointed out that the “Christological moment” - the point at which various Christians believe Jesus becomes God - differs author to author. We know from Romans 1, for instance, that Paul believes Jesus “. . . was established as Son of God . . . through resurrection from the dead.” Though most Christians today buy into John’s pre-existence picture of Jesus, those other pictures are still out there, in Paul’s letters and the other three gospels.

No matter the point at which the Christological moment takes place, all our Christian Scripture authors agree with the statement in today’s I John passage: “Who is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Yet Mark’s belief that Jesus becomes God at his baptism has some merit. It explains why the earliest gospel has no infancy narrative. Mark begins his gospel at the point Jesus either becomes God or recognizes he’s God. It also gives us an insight into the historical Jesus’ faith journey. Only when he gives himself totally over to God, as John’s baptism symbolizes, does he discover who he is. As modern theologians express it: “You have to lose yourself to find yourself.”

Mark presents us with a Jesus with whom we can identify. Like us, he must reach a point in his life where faith is more than just religious dogmas and rituals; a point, as Deutero-Isaiah stresses in our first reading, at which God becomes the center of his existence. God’s the force quenching his thirst and extinguishing his hunger. God’s word penetrates his heart and mind; God’s thoughts are now his thoughts. Mark’s Jesus isn’t playing a game of Let’s Pretend. He has real feelings, real faith. He’s really human.

Today of all days we’d best imitate Jesus by giving ourselves more emphatically to the God present in our daily lives. Remember, immediately after his Marcan baptism, Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, then returns to announce his belief that “God’s kingdom is at hand.” But according to Jesus, that kingdom can only be perceived by those who repent; those who go through the same change of value system that Jesus’ baptism symbolized.