John the Baptist proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:7-11 – NRSV)
Similar accounts may be found in Matthew 3:13–17, Luke 3:21–22 and John 1:29–34.
The English word “baptize” comes from the Greek verb baptizo (βαπτίζω) meaning “to immerse” or “to wash”. The symbolism of water, washing and purification is universal to religions. For example,
• Ritual baths were common among the Essenes as well as in the communities of Damascus and Qumran, though these were not for initiation as such; the bathing was a rather a daily occurrence expressing an endeavour for a pure life and a longing to be purified by the action of God.
• Torah imposes ritual ablutions which purify and make one fit for worship – see Numbers 19:2-10 and Deuteronomy 23:10; the prophets proclaim a pouring for of water which cleanses from sin – see Zechariah 13:1; Ezekiel associates the eschatological purification with the gift of the Spirit of God – see Ezekiel 36:24-28.
It is significant that John’s baptism is given “in the wilderness” – the place both of stripping and forging of Covenant.
John’s baptism – “with water” – is a precursor of the baptism “of/in the Spirit” which is to come through Jesus’ death and resurrection: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38. See also Luke 12:49-50 and Matthew 20:22 (according to some manuscripts).)
Christian baptism was practised in the earliest communities:
• It is uncertain whether Jesus himself batptized. John mentions that Jesus does baptize in (John 3:22) then contradicts this (John 4:2).
• Mark’s Gospel concludes with the commission: “And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved” (16:15-16. See also Matthew 28:16-20.)
• In Acts 2:38 we read: “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’.”
• In 1 Corinthians 12:13 we hear St Paul say: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” See also Romans 6:1-10; Ephesians 1:13, 4:30 and 5:26; Titus 3:5.
The Second Vatican Council summarizes the Christian belief in the[practice of baptism: “Thus by baptism men are plunged into the paschal mystery of Christ: they die with Him, are buried with Him, and rise with Him [Cf. Rom. 6:4; Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1; 2 Tim. 2:11.]; they receive the spirit of adoption as sons “in which we cry: Abba, Father” ( Rom. 8 :15), and thus become true adorers whom the Father seeks [Cf. John 4:23]”.
The focus in this text from Mark’s Gospel is Jesus. It is not John the Baptist nor is it the ritual of baptism. Both John and the ritual announce Jesus.
Mark introduces us to this Jesus in stages. Here at the baptism – the beginning of the Gospel – we hear the voice of the Father: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
At the transfiguration – the middle of the Gospel – we again hear the voice of the Father: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
That first part of the Gospel – between baptism and transfiguration – tells us mostly of Jesus’ successes. The disciples could be duped by this and think they are part of a new and successful political reality – resurrected Davidic kingdom. The command, “Listen to him!” has an urgency to it. It implies: “Pay careful attention! Make sure you do not miss the essential message!”
There is a very telling moment in the next chapter of the Gospel, one that suggests a severe jolt, a moment of awakening. James and John ask Jesus for special places in the kingdom. This might even suggest some competition her with Peter, who is normally mentioned with James and John by Mark, as at the transfiguration. Jesus turns on the two. Like a Zen master slapping the disciple he says: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”(Mark 10:38)
Spirituality is waking up. Or more precisely, spirituality is being woken up Sometimes it takes a slap, sometimes it is a joyful realization, mostly it is a dawning of light through the ordinary stuff of our days. Listen to him!