Brief synopsis of the readings: God, speaking through Isaiah, speaks of “my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights.” This servant will bring true justice and serve the cause of right. He will open the eyes of the blind and free prisoners. Mark’s Gospel speaks of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. Once baptized Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit, like a dove, descending on him.” And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you.”
We give great weight to the events around Jesus’ birth. From the Gospels we know about the events of Jesus’ conception, birth, reception (from the Maji and Herod), circumcision, and presentation in the Temple. But what about his baptism?
Except for the first few centuries of the Church, most of us think about baptism as something done with infants. We can be forgiven for thinking that Jesus was also baptized shortly after his birth, particularly as the Christmas season fills us with imagines of “The Baby Jesus.”
But if we look at Scripture we can find some fascinating things about this event. We all know that we learn about the life of Jesus from the four Gospels and they are often incomplete and sometimes contradict each other (don’t believe me? Check out the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke).
Jesus’ baptism is described in detail in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John speaks about John baptizing people but does not explicitly tell us that he baptized Jesus; I think we can assume it.
And clearly we Christians have taken these scenes to heart. Virtually all Christian faiths practice baptism, and many who don’t recognize each other’s beliefs still accept baptism from other denominations. For example the Catholic Church accepts any baptism that involves water and the Trinity (“I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”).
In 1517, when Martin Luther founded the Lutheran Church he looked at the Catholic Sacraments and determined that only two were valid: Baptism and Eucharist because he felt they were the only two who had strong Scriptural foundations.
I’m also struck by the fact that if we look on the baptism accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, they are incredibly similar. These accounts of Jesus’ life were written decades after the events they describe and they often disagree. That’s OK because they didn’t write the accounts to be factually accurate but instead to advance our faith and understanding.
One theme that appears in today’s Gospel is the question I think anyone of us would have had if we had been John the Baptist: Who am I to baptize you? John the Baptist was, if nothing else, a man who knew his place. He knew that he wasn’t the Messiah and he knew that he wasn’t worthy to loosen the thong on Jesus’ sandals. But Jesus made it clear that baptism wasn’t something bestowed on a greater person to a lesser person. Once again God does not choose someone because of something we value but instead chooses the right person for the job. And, let’s face it, if baptism is bestowed from greater to lesser, who is greater than Jesus?
One of the things I enjoy about reading Scripture is seeing something new in a passage I’ve read hundreds of times before. When I pictured Jesus being baptized I imagined that when the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit and the voice said: “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you,” that everyone heard the voice. Perhaps they did but let’s imagine that only Jesus heard it.
We don’t know Jesus’ reaction but perhaps it was meant only for his ears. The Gospels give us few details about when and how Jesus understood that he was the Son of God (and most of us were raised to believe he always knew who he was) but I hope this event gave him pause to think about this. It’s not an accident that this event helps launch his public ministry.
I’ve baptized dozens of people (mostly infants) and witnessed hundreds of others. And I can say that at no time did the skies open up and nobody heard that this child is God’s child and beloved. I can’t remember my own baptism (at 19 days) but I’m pretty certain that if this happened I would have heard about it.
There’s a reason we baptize. I hope the idea that baptism removes original sin, if only because it would have made no sense to baptize Jesus who was without sin.
Now we baptize to welcome someone into the community of believers. And I believe to my core that membership in this community provides great joys but also empowers us. Even though the Spirit didn’t announce our favor with God, this reading tells us that this goes hand in hand with our baptism.
Because of our baptism we have the power to live lives full of a grace that comes only from the Spirit. We have the power to make good choices, to bring life and hope to those who believe they are undeserving. Part of the Rite of Baptism involves lighting a candle from the Easter Candle. When the newly baptized is an infant the parents are encouraged to take this candle home and light it yearly to commemorate the baptism.
The symbolism is clear: baptism allows us to bring the light of salvation, the power of the Spirit, and the love of God to all that we do and all that we meet. Baptism began Jesus’ public ministry and it begins ours also. It means learning to share when we are in kindergarten. It means reaching out to the shy and unpopular when we are in high school. It means healing the wounds of those around us when we are adults.
If you think we don’t encounter these events in our lives, let me recount an event when I was a high school youth minister many years ago. One of the girls in the group was experiencing a difficult time in her life and found herself pregnant. She was considering terminating the pregnancy and spoke with one of the boys in the group (who wasn’t the father). He counseled her against it and she chose to continue the pregnancy. Today her child is an adult and is the apple of her eye. When the boy counseled her against the “easy way out” he may not have thought much about his baptism, but months later when I heard the story I knew that this boy was chosen for this.
And I thank God every day for the conversation.