January 13th 2013 Baptism of the LORD (c)

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

B. Dialogue: Baptism: Belief in the Heavens opened

 First Reading (Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7).

This is the first of what has become known as the four Servant Songs of Deutero-Isaiah. (The others are 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12.) The identity of this Servant has been discussed for a long period and continues to be debated, for instance whether the Servant intended by the original author of the poems is an individual or a community, for instance God’s own people Israel. And if a person is the Servant, in the mind of the prophet, the prophet himself, or some contemporary or future messenger of God to Israel, and through Israel to the world. What seems clear is that the person in these four passages is defined by his mission and his message. He is chosen by God with a message for all humanity. He feels that his labours are in vain, but is reassured by God and is confident that his cause is with the Lord (Isaiah 49:4); he will suffer humiliation but will be vindicated by God (50:1-4); his sufferings will bring salvation to many, for whom he will make intercession. Whatever of the person the original prophet had in mind, the mission and message described have been carried on by individuals throughout history, and of course in a very special way in Jesus, the Servant of the Lord par excellence.

            In today’s reading the Servant is introduced by God himself. The Servant is specially chosen by God, and endowed by God with his spirit, with the mission of bringing God’s salvation, with a knowledge of God’s saving will, to the nations, beyond Israel’s boundaries. The Servant is no warrior king, but very gentle in his ways, faithful to his mission. Humanity (“the islands”) is envisaged as looking forward to salvation. At the end of the passage God addresses his Servant directly, reminding him of his exalted mission –- to lead people from “captivity”, from a negative existence, to new hope.

            Whatever was the identity of the Servant was in the mind of the original author of this passage about the year 545 B.C., and while certain of the Servant’s traits could have been borne by others over the centuries that followed, the true fulfilment of the message of this passage was declared by God from heaven to his Son Jesus, at his baptism. For this reason the passage is read today to go with the reading from the Gospel of Luke.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 28[29]). The voice of God resounds on the waters.

Second Reading (Acts 10:34-38).

Saul, later renamed Paul, was chosen by God to be the apostle of the Gentiles, to bring the message of the Gospel and all this implied beyond Judaism. Luke devotes the second part of the Acts of the Apostles to show how Paul very successfully fulfilled this mission. But Luke, in today’s readings, sees fit to remind his readers that Paul was not the first to be called to do this in theory or in practice. Peter was directed by the Spirit of God to go to the house of the pagan, non-Jewish, centurion Cornelius, a pious man who, with his family, was intent on doing God’s will. The Lord made it clear to the Jew Peter that God made no distinction between Jew and non-Jew. All were equal in his sight. Peter makes Cornelius and his household aware of this, and gives a brief account of the early Christian catechesis, on the work of Jesus from the baptism of John onwards. The passage stresses two points: John’s baptism and, secondly, how Jesus was anointed by God with the Holy Spirit and power, an anointing and power that was shown in Jesus’ miracles and his undoing of the work of Satan.

Gospel (Luke 3:15-16, 21-22).

All four gospels begin their account of the public life of Jesus with an account of the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. Today’s reading from Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism highlights two points: the heightened messianic expectations among the people and the place of prayer in Jesus’ ministry. We know from the account of the more or less contemporary Jewish historian Josephus that John’s ministry of baptism made a great impression on the people. It was natural that some would take him to be a wonder working messiah, which John denies. John speaks of another to come after him who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. John does not specify what precisely he means by the Holy Spirit. This will be made clear in Jesus’ baptism. Jesus identifies himself with “all the people” who seek John’s baptism. A point made by Luke, not in the other Gospels, is Jesus’ prayer after his baptism. It was the beginning of a new moment in his mission, and Luke notes that at such moments Jesus retired for prayer. Before choosing his twelve apostles Jesus went out to the mountain and spent the night in prayer to God (Luke 6:12). Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane is recounted in all three Synoptic Gospels. Jesus was involved in the revelation of God’s mystery, a mystery to be understood by faith and in prayer. After his baptism it was during his prayer that heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus, and the voice from heaven declared to Jesus that he was the Father’s beloved Son. The open heavens meant that earth was in contact, in dialogue, with heaven. God was no remote impersonal being. Revelation was a reality. What the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus meant is spelt our further by Peter in today’s second reading. In the power of this Spirit he went about doing good during his public life.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day

Dialogue: Baptism: Belief in the Heavens opened

Christian baptism may too easily be taken for granted, not as the great mystery and profession of Christian faith that it is. It is a profession of faith in all that the Christian religion stands for. Above all else it is a profession of faith in the “heavens opened”, that there is a reality, a world, beyond what the senses can perceive. It is profession of faith that this world is not all. Without this faith the most simple form of the rite of baptism would have no meaning – the pouring of water, or immersing in water, baptising in the name of each of the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. It is a profession that we believe that God has spoken through his Son Jesus, and has bidden us to listen to him, and to the Church that continues his mission, the Church his Bride his mystical body.

            Many believers today do not come to Mass or the Sacraments regularly, perhaps only at Christmas and Easter. Others are baptized but have contact with the Church only at marriage, and the burial of their loved ones. But they would still reckon themselves as believers, as Christians, followers of Christ. They believe in God and in the other world. They believe in the heavens opened, and in the voice that spoke to Jesus after his baptism.

            It is only when all this belief has ceased that people refuse to have their children baptized. The heavens opened mean nothing for them. They refuse to believe that there is, or can be, any voice from outside telling humans how to live their lives, even if Christians believe that this divine message really means living human life and living it abundantly, as Jesus himself said (John 10:10).

            We live in an age, and in a country, where there is a drive to introduce a society where the open heavens, or a voice from God, have no place. These are some thoughts we can ponder when we reflect on Jesus’ baptism, and the descent of the Holy Spirit on him, a spirit in which he went about doing good, healing all kinds of diseases, bringing a message of hope to the marginalized and those who may lose their way in life.

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