“The people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ . . .” (Luke 3:15)

Today our mission starts in earnest.  The Baptism of the Lord is the end of the official Christmas Season, although, as we have seen, there is a time honored tradition of keeping the Christmas lights burning until the Feast of the Presentation on February 2nd. And to be sure today’s feast and the Presentation both have important connections to Christmas, but both also point us forward into the drama of the liturgical year.  

John the Baptist, by El Greco, 1597-1607

There’s something a little unsettling about the Baptism of Jesus, but the inspired authors of the Gosples clearly want us to pay close attention to it. It’s the opening action in the Gospel of Mark, and the first event in the other Gospels after the infancy narratives or, in the Case of John’s Gospel, the Hymn of the Word Made Flesh.  The Baptism inaugurates Christ’s public ministry, and is also one of the few events outside of the Passion and Resurrection narrative that all four Gospels describe in (more or less) the same terms.  

I say “more or less” because there are subtle but significant differences. Mark’s account, for instance, is the sparest, except that he gives us the most vivid picture of the Baptist himself: “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6).  John’s Gospel recounts John the Baptist hailing Jesus with the title “Lamb of God” (John 1:36), an image which takes a prominent place in other Johannine books, especially Revelation.  They all tell of John’s recognition of himself as a mere the forerunner to Jesus, whom he points out as the true Messiah, but only Matthew records his reluctance to baptize the Lord:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. (Matthew 3:13-15)

The Baptist, like us, finds something unsettling about Jesus seeking baptism.  John knows who Jesus is.  He knows that Jesus, being sinless, has no need of forgiveness. He only consents to baptizing his Lord after Jesus assures him that it is “to fulfill all righteousness.” But what does that mean for Jesus, who is surely the very embodiment of all righteousness?

Before we try to answer that question, let’s take a look at Luke’s Gospel, which provides this year’s Mass reading.  Luke includes an observation unique to his account: “The people were filled with expectation.” (Luke 3:15) He draws our attention not just to the curiosity of the crowd asking John whether he is the Messiah, but to the longing in their hearts.  The Man to whom John directs their attention as one mightier than himself answers their expectation by submitting to baptism in company with them, and he is praying in their midst, when

heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him
in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

Jesus undergoing baptism, not for himself but for the benefit of the crowd watching him with expectation in their hearts, is pleasing to God.  In today’s Office of Readings St. Gregory Nazianzus explains the implications of Christ’s actions for our own expectant hearts:

Today let us do honor to Christ’s baptism and celebrate this feast in holiness. Be cleansed entirely and continue to be cleansed. Nothing gives such pleasure to God as the conversion and salvation of men, for whom his every word and every revelation exist. He wants you to become a living force for all mankind, lights shining in the world. You are to be radiant lights as you stand beside Christ, the great light, bathed in the glory of him who is the light of heaven.

“You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

The Baptism of Christ, by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, 1470-1475

St. Gregory tells us we are to be shining lights, not shining with our own glory, but reflecting the Light of God.  Our being cleansed, that is to say, the forgiveness of our sins, is not for ourselves alone, but in order to make us suitable instruments for the Lord.

We welcomed the Christ Child at Christmas and now, as he takes up his mission as a grown man, our mission is to follow him, that all righteousness may be fulfilled.  All four Gospels contain some version of words from Heaven at the Baptism of Jesus: “You are my beloved Son, in You I am well pleased.” We are reminded of these words later, on Mount Tabor, but now directed not at Jesus himself, but to the watching disciples: “This is my chosen son.” Here we have the added command: “Listen to Him!” (Luke 9:35).  We have our marching orders.

Featured image top of page: The Baptism of Christ, by Hans Rottenhammer and Jan Bruegel, early 17th Century

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