The Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
On Christmas day, we celebrated and reflected on the Incarnation of the Son of God as one of us in Jesus Christ. That "being one of us" is something that’s been carried throughout the liturgical season, as we reflected on Mary, on the Holy Family, and on the Epiphany. And it continues through to our celebration Sunday of the Baptism of the Lord.
I think this concept of Jesus identifying with the rest of us is important to remember as we look at the Baptism of Jesus. Scripture scholars remind us that Jesus’ Baptism was somewhat problematic for the early church. After all, John the Baptist was preaching a baptism of repentance. Why would Jesus, who had no need to repent, subject Himself to such a thing? In our Gospel reading from Matthew (3:13-17), John the Baptist asks the same question: "I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?" But Jesus responds: "Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." What kind of righteousness is He talking about? It is not the righteousness of the Pharisees and the scribes. Our Gospel passage is right after the Gospel reading we heard a few weeks ago during Advent, when John confronts the Pharisees and scribes who came to the Jordan River: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good evidence of your repentance." There were probably many Pharisees who didn’t even bother coming to the Jordan River, having dismissed John as some crazy man, and so sure of their own righteousness.
So, Jesus, not needing repentance, but wanting perhaps to contrast Himself with the religious leaders and to show his support for the Baptist, demonstrates His connection with "sinners," which He does all through the Gospels, and consents to be baptized. In so doing, He leads us to be baptized, and shows us how to live as baptized.
The first thing that Jesus shows us in His Baptism is that we cannot fall into self-righteousness. We are all in need of repentance. We are all in need of the cleansing of baptism. And we have no grounds to look down upon others. As Peter says in the household of Cornelius in our second reading from Acts (10:34-38), "I see that God shows no partiality."
As He demonstrates His solidarity with the people, Jesus shows himself to be their servant. And God vindicates the choice. When Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit descends upon Him like a dove, and a voice from heaven says, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." Following our baptism we are called to be servants. What kind of servants? Look at our first reading, one of the "Servant-of-the-Lord" oracles found in Isaiah (42:1-4, 6-7). We are called to be so gentle as not to "break" a "bruised reed," or "quench" a "smoldering wick." At the same time, we are to called to be bold enough to share the light of Christ, and help "open the eyes of the blind," "bring out prisoners from confinement," and help lift up "from the dungeon, those who live in darkness." Though we cannot do this on our own, we can by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit we received when we were baptized. The world does not need any more "crying out" or "shouting" or self-promotion. Instead, what is needed is more justice and humility and light.
May God continue to bless us all, and may we live out our baptism.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P. is on staff at St. Paul of the Cross Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.