The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord now occupies a well-defined slot in the reformed liturgical calendar, being celebrated on the first Sunday after the Epiphany. Sometimes, as in this year, the feast can occur rather suddenly, jolting us abruptly back to the humdrum routine of daily living after the high time of Christmas festivities. Nonetheless this rapid shift from festivity to normality may serve in offering us a clearer understanding of at least one aspect of the meaning of the feast we are now commemorating. We see that it is a dividing line in the calendar of Sundays, a separation from one level of celebration to the more sober and routine celebration of Sundays of Ordinary Time, a liturgical cut-off moment leaving the stage clear for a new beginning.
Can we transpose this idea of a new beginning to the Baptism of Our Lord? Possibly we can. On looking at the gospels we discover that the Baptism is one of the few episodes recounted in all four. The ministry of John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus herald the commencement of the public ministry of Our Lord and His proclaiming of the Kingdom of God. We know that John was preaching in the south of Palestine around the Jordan River and was attracting great crowds to hear his message of repentance. He also had his disciples. His fame was spread widely over the country and Jesus, a young carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee was likewise caught by the fire of his message. He travelled southwards, over eighty or ninety kilometres, a journey of nearly three days. We do not know whether he listened to John’s preaching for a period before requesting Baptism or if he asked for Baptism immediately on reaching the Jordan. However we can safely surmise that the long journey of many hours of solitary walking would have afforded this sincere young carpenter ample reflection time before arriving, a time when he would have been pondering on the significance of John’s message and what it might mean to him personally. On his part too, John was making his own preparation for the event as he constantly proclaimed “One mightier than I is coming after me. … I will baptise you with water. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.” John realised that the moment of Jesus’ Baptism when it occurred, would be significant for him also as it would mean the beginning of a new religious era for the Jewish people.
Mark goes into very little detail about the Baptism. He simply states. “On coming up out of the water, he (Jesus) saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk 1, 10-11). All this language, rich in symbolism, is redolent with Old Testament echoes. One would hesitate to call them references. The heavens being opened reminds us of the theophany on Mount Sinai, where the voice of God is almost identical with the might of the theophany (Ex 19, 16-19). The Spirit descending as a dove, reminds us of the hovering of the Spirit over the waters of creation at the onset of universal history (Gen 1, 2). All three motifs, rending of the heavens, the Spirit´s dovelike descent, the voice from heaven, prepare for the identification of Jesus that follows “You are my beloved Son” (cf. Ps 2, 7). Mark interprets the heavenly voice confirming the already existing relationship of love between God and Jesus. “In whom I am well pleased.”
Did this profound religious experience mean anything to the young carpenter from Nazareth? We know that it obviously did, since the life of Jesus changed radically some time later. Jesus had been searching for God´s will before the Baptism. The Baptism acted on him in the same manner as the prophetic call on prophets of the Old Testament. A prophetic vocation consisted of three elements, call from God, identification and a resulting change of life direction. All three elements are present in Mark’s account of the Baptism, the call from God in the phrase “the heavens opened” with the voice which called “This is my beloved Son” confirming his identity as Son of God. The profound sense of being loved by God was conveyed by the Spirit “like a dove descending upon him”. This is how Jesus experienced the call from God Almighty impelling him to go out and preach the Kingdom. We can see then that the Baptism is a very significant milestone in the life of Our Blessed Lord, a truly crucial moment when Jesus discovers his true identity and his mission.
The synoptic gospels continue this narrative by relating how Jesus withdrew into the desert for a period of forty days. There he could contemplate and ponder on how he could live out the meaning and significance of the Baptism for him personally. We know that shortly afterwards, he embarked on his public mission, preaching the Kingdom, spending long hours in healing and teaching people as well as long periods with His Father in solitary prayer. This active public life which followed in the living out of His Baptism would also include many humdrum and routine moments for Jesus. In much the same manner, our year of life and worship will also consist of high moments of celebration and prayer in addition to the myriad uneventful repetitious actions and thoughts which go to make up the stuff of everyday living.
Sr. Mary O’Byrne OP