The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
Reflection and Dialogue: Baptism and Christian spirituality; baptism and the belief in the heavens open to us
Introduction to the readings: Today we are celebrating the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, baptism in the waters of the Jordan, and each of the readings has a connection with that event. The baptism itself is described in the reading from Mark’s gospel. The first reading is chosen for today’s liturgy because it opens with an invitation to God’s people to come to the waters, to have a thirst for God, and to find life. The water in question is the water of life which brings joy, as the Responsorial Psalms reminds us. The Father from heaven bore witness to his Son at his baptism in the waters of the Jordan, when the Holy Spirit descended on him. The second reading tells us that there are three who bear witness, the Spirit, the water and the blood, the blood at Calvary.
First Reading (Isaiah 55:1-11). Come to the water. Listen and your soul will live. This reading is chosen for today’s celebration by reason of the invitation it contains to come to the water, the water of life, that God is offering free of charge. It also has a directive from God to seek God while he is to be found, and to abandon wicked ways and seek forgiveness from God, themes connected with the preaching of John the Baptist, and his baptisms.
It is worth passing beyond this liturgical use of today’s reading to examine it in its setting within the book of Isaiah and study it against its original historical context. This particular chapter 55 is the conclusion of the section of the book of Isaiah generally known today as Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). Various themes of these chapters are re-echoed in this section. At the beginning his work (Isaiah 40:6-8) the prophet author heard a heavenly voice say to him: “Cry out!”, to which he answers: “What shall I cry?”, to be told: “All people are grass; … the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of the Lord will stand forever”. Throughout the chapters of Second Isaiah, many promises are made by God to his people of the glorious future in store for them, and one might be led to believe that there was no religious dimension involved. God’s people would be reminded in this chapter that this was not the case. Their future would be a life in union with their God, the God of glory. In this final exhortation God addresses his people in words reminiscent of the invitation of Wisdom in Israel’s wisdom tradition, inviting them to have a thirst for divine things, to come to the fountain of life, to be prepared for the banquet that God was preparing for his people. In the earlier history of the kingdom of Judah, God’s covenant was with David. This would no longer be the case. The promise was democratized, and the covenant would be with the people itself, an eternal covenant, and Israel would be held in high regard because of this. The Holy One of Israel would glorify them.
The text stresses that salvation is from the Lord and for this reason his people must seek God now, while he is still to be found. The text admits that there are wicked and evil people among them. They must repent and lead a life in keeping with God’s will, God’s thoughts and God’s ways, and be aware that his ways and thoughts are as far removed from them as heaven is from earth. The passage, and Second Isaiah, ends on the solemn note in which Second Isaiah began, with the word of God which lasts forever. The word that goes forth from his mouth does not return to him empty, but succeeds in what it was sent to do. That was true when Second Isaiah penned these lines about five hundred years before Christ’s coming, and they still remain true. God’s word will stand forever.
Responsorial Psalm (Isaiah 12:2-6). With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Second Reading (1 John 5:1-9). The Spirit and water and blood. This reading is a fitting one for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, since the final section of it speaks of the testimony, the witness, given by the Spirit, water and blood, testimony given at the baptism of Jesus and at his death on the cross.
It is not quite easy to understand the exact meaning of some of the statements made in this reading, although they would have been clear to John’s first readers in the problems and situations he was addressing towards the end of the first century. There are various themes in today’s reading, but for the greater part two. It begins with emphasis on the point of faith that Jesus is the Christ, that is the Son of God. This belief unites one with God. Anyone who loves the one who begets (that is God) loves those begotten by God, that is Jesus Christ and all believers, born of faith. Love of God implies love of all God’s children. Love of the neighbour means love of God, and love of God means keeping his commandments. Commandments can be of various kinds and enumerations. There are the Ten Commandments. But John is probably thinking of the two: love of God and belief in Jesus Christ. The text goes on to say that God’s commandments are not difficult, because believers have overcome the world through faith in Jesus. Keeping the commandments is not just a matter of human effort, but is the action of believers united to God and Jesus through faith, with the power of the risen Lord and of the Holy Spirit within them. “The world” in the thought world and language of John represents the forces contrary to Christ and keen in having his mission a failure. The victory over these is fought in the consciences of believers, who know that Christ has been victorious through the cross, and that all believers partake in this victory of Christ. The faith that gives this victory is not a mere human conviction, but the working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and consciences of believers.
The second part of this reading speaks of witness, testimony. Jesus came by water and blood, with the Spirit as another witness. Once again one in not quite sure as to what the original author had in mind, and what the first readers understood. The water in question is probably the waters of the Jordan at Jesus’ baptism, and the blood that of the Cross. But both may refer to Jesus’ death on the Cross, when blood and water came out of his pierced side, something which the Fourth Evangelist (in the Johannine tradition) says be bore witness. The Holy Spirit came on Jesus at his baptism. John says that the Spirit also gives witness, since the Spirit is the truth. The witness to the truth of Jesus and his mission is not testimony for a law court, but one in the hearts and consciences of believers. Those three – water, blood, Spirit – continue to bear witness to Christ in the Church, through the divine mysteries of the sacraments of baptism (water) and the Eucharist (blood), with the Holy Spirit keeping believers aware of the relevance of these for every generation and for every age, the young and the old.
Gospel (Mark 1:7-11). You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you. 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 by the Evangelist Mark 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. Mark’s text tells us that after Jesus’ baptism by John, no sooner had he come out of the water than he saw the heavens torn apart 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 Jesus, and through him to all, that he 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.
- 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 another 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.