Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Baptism of the Lord (12 January 2014)

Baptism of the Lord (12 January 2014)

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he allowed him.

After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened (for him), and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove (and) coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

Introductory notes

1. The English word “to baptize” comes from the Greek word baptizein meaning “to immerse.” Ritual immersion, symbolizing purification of life, was a Jewish custom in the time of Jesus. Thus we have John the Baptist – ie the one who baptizes. (See Luke 3:16-17.) John may have belonged to a group known as the Essenes – they had a form of “baptism” in their community.

It is uncertain whether Jesus actually baptized anyone in this way. (See John 3:22-23; 4:1-3.) The Apostles and first disciples certainly did baptize people as an initiation into the Christian life. (See Acts 2:38; 10:48; 19:5; 22:16; 1Corinthians1:13-16; 6:11; Galatians 3:27; Romans 6:3.)

2. This moment in Matthew’s Gospel is the occasion on which Jesus is ordained, as it were, for his ministry by the Holy Spirit. He is proclaimed to be the Son of God.

3. The exchange between Jesus and John, peculiar to Matthew, reveals John’s awareness of Jesus’ superiority to him as the mightier one who is coming and who will baptize with the holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11). His reluctance to admit Jesus among the sinners whom he is baptizing with water is overcome by Jesus’ response.

4. The expression – “to fulfil all righteousness” – probably means that Jesus is to submit to the plan of God for the salvation of the human race. This involves Jesus’ identification with sinners; hence the propriety of his accepting John’s baptism. (See also the use of this term in  Matthew 5:66:33,)

5. When Matthew refers to “the Spirit . . . coming upon him”, this seems to be a clear reference to Isaiah:

“Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased. Upon him I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:1)

6. Mark’s account of Jesus baptism – an account that Matthew depends upon – has: “And a voice came from the heavens, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’.” (Mark 1:11). Matthew adapts it. Instead of saying “you are”, he uses the more impersonal “this is”, making the statement a proclamation to the world rather than an intimate statement of the Father to the Son. Again, Matthew is echoing Isaiah: “Here is my servant whom I uphold ….” (Isaiah 42:1). It also echoes the Psalm: “I will proclaim the decree of the LORD, he said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’” (Psalm 2:7).

Our text

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he allowed him.”

At the beginning of Chapter 3, Matthew introduces the mission of John by telling us that people from Jerusalem, Judaea and the Jordan “made their way to him, and as they were baptized by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins” (3:5-6). Furthermore, Matthew notes that when John

“saw a number of Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming retribution? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance and do not presume to tell yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father,” because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones …’” (3:7-10)

John’s baptism is “for repentance” (3:11). So where does Jesus fit in this scenario?

One scholar writes:

“That Jesus was baptized by John is among the most certain historical facts in the Gospel tradition. Since it assumes a dependence upon and inferiority to John on Jesus’ part, it is clearly not the kind of story that early Christians would have invented. The dialogue inserted in Matthew 3:14-15 indicates that early Christians felt some embarrassment about the episode and needed an explanation of how it came about.” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 63.)

We might see this little episode as a simple but profound affirmation of the Incarnation. Jesus is “God with us” (see Matthew 2:23).

The Incarnation says, “In the flesh there is something more than the flesh; because of the flesh an infinite horizon opens up; through the flesh we are transformed”.

“We must go through the finite, the limited, the definite, omitting none of it lest we omit some of the potency of being-in-the-flesh. This does not mean that we should go through it violently, looking for a means to a breakthrough; that would be to try to accomplish everything at one stroke. The finite is not itself a generality, to be encompassed in one fell swoop. Rather it contains many shapes and byways and clevernesses and powers and diversities and persons, and we must not go too fast from the many to the one. We waste our time if we try to go around or above or under the definite; we must literally go through it. And in taking this narrow path directly, we shall be using our remembered experience of things seen and earned in a cumulative way, to create hope in the things that are not yet seen.” (William Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination, University of Notre Dame, 1975, 7.)