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January 8 (A) 2017 Baptism of the Lord

Martin McNamara

A. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Baptism and Christian spirituality; baptism and the belief in the heavens open to us

The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7). Here is my servant in whom my soul delights. This beautiful oracle is the first of four ‘songs of the servant’ in the Book of Isaiah. (The others are 49:1-6; 50:4-9, or 4-11; 52:13-53:12.) This text speaks of God’s special choice of this servant prophet, beloved by God. As befits biblical leaders he is empowered by God’s Spirit. It speaks of his nature; he is gentle, but faithful to his mission until he has fulfilled it. It tells of the mission given him by God, a mission which God empowers him to carry out. He is to be a covenant of the people Israel, to remind them of their mission. He will also be a light to the nations beyond Israel, and will release captives, captive Israel, from its bondage. A question naturally arising is the identity of the servant in the mind of the prophet, writing towards the end of the Babylonian exile. Opinions differ: historical Israel, ideal Israel, an Old Testament person before or after the time of the poet prophet, the prophet author of the text himself. The servant is left unidentified, to be identified by his very special personality, his choice by God and his special relationship with him, his tremendous mission. His person and mission could stand as identifying and standing as a model for Israel, God’s chosen people, with a world mission, or for a chosen individual with such a mission. It would be fulfilled as God saw fit, and this was through God’s Son, Jesus Christ, as is made clear at the baptism of Jesus when Jesus is anointed with the Spirit, and the voice from heaven, replacing the Isaiah’s word “servant” with “Son”, declares that the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled in Jesus.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 28[29]). The Lord will bless his people with peace.

Second Reading (Acts of the Apostles 10:34-38). God had anointed him with the Holy Spirit. The setting for this reading in the Acts of the Apostles is the scene in which Peter is told by the Holy Spirit to go to the house of the pagan centurion and preach the good news to him. Up to this believers were from the Jewish community only. Due to God’s command, Peter now understood that the Gospel was for all Jew and pagan and stresses this in his address to the centurion Cornelius and his household. Peter gives a summary of the Gospel message, beginning, as all early Christian preaching did, with the baptism activity of John the Baptist. While he does not explicitly mention the baptism of Jesus, Peter implies it, as the occasion in which God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power, in the strength of which he continued his saving mission.

Gospel (Matthew 3:13-17). As soon as Jesus was baptised he saw the Spirit of God coming down on him. Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Traditionally in the liturgy it was one of three great manifestations, recalled by the Church for the liturgy of the feast of the Epiphany: on Epiphany the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles (the Magi), at the Baptism the manifestation by the Father’s voice, and on the Sunday after this (Second the Yearly Cycle) Jesus’ manifestation of his glory at Cana. In the earlier liturgy the narrative of the wedding feast at Cana was read on this day. It is now read on the Third Year (C) of the cycle while other manifestations from the Baptism period, as in John’s Gospel, are read in years one and two (A and B) of the cycle. Reflection on today’s Gospel reading will combine both history and faith. John the Baptist was an important historical figure. His ministry and martyrdom are recounted at some length by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, as the former is in the verses preceding this Gospel reading (verses commented on in these reflections for the Second Sunday of Advent). Jesus’ ministry really began with his baptism. He came from Galilee to John with the purpose of being baptized. When John, preaching a baptism of repentance from sin, objected Jesus insisted, as his mission was to do fully the will of God (“all that righteousness demands”), and identify with sinners. After ascending from the waters of baptism Jesus sees the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove. At the creation of the world the Spirit of God hovered over the waters; now at the new creation with Jesus the Spirit descends on Jesus. In the power of this Spirit Jesus would cast out devils, undo the work of Satan and bring in the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ ministry is both history and mystery, the working of the Holy Spirit. After his ascension he would send his Spirit, the Holy Spirit, on the Church to continue his work. A voice (of the Father) from heaven announces to all that Jesus is his beloved Son. He is the Father’s chosen one for the salvation of the world. The heavens were opened at Jesus’ baptism, noting that God and humanity are in contact. Belief in the heavens opened in central to Christian belief, a belief expressed in Christian baptism, a belief totally rejected by humanists and atheists. A simple baptism is a deep profession of faith.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day

Reflection and Dialogue: Baptism and Christian spirituality; baptism and the belief in the heavens open to us

Reflection. Baptism and Christian Spirituality. Our celebration of the baptism of Jesus is not just about an event in the life of Christ, or the beginning of his public life. All the New Testament texts are at pains to point out that at his baptism he was anointed with the Holy Spirit. In the power of that Spirit he went about doing good and undoing the work of sin and Satan. The Church from the beginning has looked on Christian baptism as intimate union with Jesus and his baptism, and with the giving of the Holy Spirit to believers. This Holy Spirit makes us aware that we are children of God. Possession of the Spirit is an anointing that gives confidence of faith in Christ and his church. The Holy Spirit works quietly to help believers live the Christian life in the spirit of the beatitudes. Today in certain quarters there is much talk about spirituality, sometimes with the implication that while religion is inferior, spirituality is good and respectable. In our world it is well to note that spirituality can be used in different senses. It can be used, and is used, by humanists with little regard for faith or belief in God or the other world. Spirituality in this sense is a quality or manifestation of the human spirit, irrespective of any belief. For Christian believers spirituality is life under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a life of grace. All believers, rich and poor, young and old, learned and otherwise, have a spirituality, just a they possess the Holy Spirit, given at baptism and abiding all through life.

Belief in the heavens opened. All the Gospel narratives speak of the heavens being opened at the baptism of Jesus, and of the Father’s voice speaking from heaven. The open heavens mean that there is another world, with an absolute God, and that there is contact between the two – not an abstract or remote contact but a close and personal one. Profession of faith in this other world and all it stands for is made at any baptism, be it of an infant or an adult. The pouring of the material element of water on the head at baptism is an expression of deep faith, and has sense only with such faith. Belief in an other world and contact with it, in the opened heaven, is naturally denied by humanists and atheists, and because of this the ultimate sign of rejection of Christian belief is the refusal to have children baptised.

      Belief in this open heaven is sustained by faith and contact with the sacraments. This is one message for us of this feast of the Baptism of Christ.

(For reflections on the Sunday and Feast Day readings see Martin McNamara, Sunday Readings with Matthew: Interpretations and Reflections, Dublin, Veritas, 2016)