Baptism of the Lord – Year B
He wanted to rise from the abyss
We have already meditated on the second Sunday of Advent the first verses of this passage (vv. 7-8). They have, in short, the difference between the baptism of John and that of Jesus. The two rituals are apparently the same but completely different in meaning. The first is an external ablution. It indicates the cleansing from sin, the breaking up with a way of life contrary to God’s law. It presupposes the decision not to stain oneself with other transgressions. The second, the baptism with the Holy Spirit, is not an exterior cleansing, but a miracle worked by the Lord in a person. It is the infusion of a gushing water, bearer of fertility and life. It is the replacement of the old heart with a new heart, able to answer “yes” to the proposal of love made by God. The baptism of John was the end of a long and troubled engagement, that of Jesus was the beginning of the wedding feast.
After disclosing the distinct values of the two baptisms, Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, makes no mention of the childhood of Jesus. For the first time he depicts the protagonist of his gospel and does so with a solemn formula, often used by the prophets in their oracles: “In those days …” (Joel 3:2); then he records the name of the village from where he comes, Nazareth in Galilee (v. 9).
He does not say how old he was or to what family he belonged. He is interested only to indicate how, when and where the manifestation the gospel of God in the world began. It all started at the Jordan, a river that flows peacefully in the plains of Jericho, scoring the boundary between the eastern desert and the promised land, where Joshua brought the people out of Egypt. There, all the inhabitants of Judea flocked to be baptized (Mk 1:5-6). One day, Jesus also appeared among the sinners. He came from Galilee, the region inhabited by Israelites believed to be semi-pagans by the religious aristocracy of Jerusalem. He went down into the water along with the sinners to show his desire to share their condition. He was beside them accompanying them in their exodus from slavery to freedom.
In this scene the novelty of the Christian God can be already understood. He is not a distant God, in the sky, who gives instructions and control, who observes who violates them. He becomes one of us, in solidarity with humanity not in sin but in bearing its consequences that always involve, as we all know, also one who did not sin. We are attached to evil. However, in our prayer rather than asking the Lord to let us avoid it, we implore that he saves us with some miraculous intervention from its tragic consequences: disease, hunger, misery, anguish, family disagreements, wars… God, who is not resigned to palliative solutions, sent his son to destroy the evil at its roots and create a new world without sin, a world in which all his promises will be fulfilled. “May our barns be full, with every kind of provision” (Ps 144:13), “may grain abound throughout the land” (Ps 72:16), “the lowly will eat and be satisfied” (Ps 22:27), “the humble will inherit the land and enjoy peace in abundance” (Ps 37:11). These are not images, but concrete realities that can be actually seen if one trusts Christ and his word.
All the evangelists give importance to the baptism of Jesus because it marked the beginning of his public life. But it is not the incident itself that they want to attract attention to, as the revelation of the sky. In this event, one can capture it. The Synoptic Gospels present it to us with three images well understood by their readers: the opening of the heavens, the dove, the voice from heaven (vv. 10-11).
In Matthew and Luke it seems that all those present have contemplated the heavens opened wide; they have seen the Spirit descending as a dove, and they have heard the voice from heaven. In Mark, however, Jesus is the only recipient of the vision and revelation: “He came out of the water and he saw…” (v. 10). It was the moment of his vocation, one in which the Father has manifested the mission for which he called him.
First of all, He saw the heavens opened.
The picture is now clear for one who knows the Scriptures: the evangelist refers to a famous text from the prophet Isaiah.
In the last centuries before Christ, the people of Israel had the feeling that the sky was closed. Outraged by the sins and unfaithfulness of his people, God had withdrawn into his world. He had stopped sending prophets and seemed to have broken all dialogue with people. The pious Israelites were wondering: when will this distressing silence end? Will the Lord not speak to us again? Will he no longer show his serene face, as in ancient times? They called upon him: “O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay and you are our potter; we are the work of your hands. Do not let your anger go too far or think of our sins forever; do not remember our iniquity forever. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Is 64:7-8; 63:19).
In the baptism of Jesus, the heavens are rent. The rapports between God and man were forever restored. The borders fell and all the fears of God’s punishment are over. Now it is clear how absurd the fears of those who still imagine him angry, vengeful and violent. There’s no more need to be anxious to placate him because he does not reject anyone, does not act as a judge, but he is always on the side of people.
The second object of the “vision” is the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove.
When God assigns someone to a great mission, he always gives him also the strength to carry it out. He infused his spirit on the kings, prophets, judges. The moment he sends his “faithful servant,” he says: “I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations… A broken reed he will not crush, nor will he snuff out the light of the wavering wick” (Is 42:1-4). The sent “servant” becomes conscious of the power of God entering him, says: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken hearts, freedom to those languishing in prison” (Is 61:1).
At the beginning of his public life, Jesus also was filled with the power of the Spirit.
To help us understand the theological message present in this event, the evangelist uses the image of a dove.
There are many biblical references related to this figure. The first could be the creation, at the time when “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen 1:2), as a dove on her nest, some rabbis explained.
The primordial ocean, symbol of chaos and hostile elements, was then dominated by the “divine wind” and on earth life sprang forth. Alighting on Jesus, the Spirit of God came into the world and, with its presence, initiates the new creation.
The second, most immediate recall is the dove of the deluge, let out by Noah in the ark. It returned in the evening with an olive branch (Gen 8:8-12). That was the sign of restored peace between the heavens and the earth, after the destruction of all forms of sin.
For centuries, since the sky closed itself, the spirit of the Lord seemed not to find a place on which to set itself. Like the dove of the deluge, it crossed the sky only to return later to God. Now it descends on Jesus, making his permanent dwelling in him. He is the force that will let him bring to completion the work of salvation. The dove also recalls tenderness and love. Moved by the Spirit, Jesus will always draw himself closer to sinners with the gentleness and kindness of the dove.
Finally, a voice from heaven was heard. The expression is well known: the rabbis employed it to attribute a statement to God. In our passage is intended to define, in the name of the Lord, Jesus’ identity.
Mark wrote after Easter. He must respond to the questions that the disciples ask. Their Master was condemned as a blasphemer by the guarantors of the purity of Israel’s faith. He is apparently a loser, an outcast and abandoned by the Lord. The troubling question is: has God shared this judgment?
To the Christians of his community, Mark refers to the Lord’s judgment with a phrase that alludes to three texts of the Old Testament.
You are my son: the quote is from Ps 2:7. The royal coronation day constituted, for the Davidic king who reigns in Jerusalem, a new birth. It was the moment in which God declared him his son. He conferred on him, his power and his strength. He presented him as his lieutenant to the world.
Jesus’ investiture by the Father took place in the Jordan. There, he was shown to all as the savior, as the human face of God who exists from all eternity. “To what angel did God say—asks the author of the Letter to the Hebrews—You are my son; I have begotten you today? And to what angel did he promise: I shall be a father, and he shall be a son to me?” (Heb 1:5). On the day of his baptism, the Son who, from all eternity, exists “is with the Father” (Jn 1:18); he is “born” as messiah.
In the Semitic culture the word child does not mean only the biological generation. It also implies the affirmation of a similarity. Addressing Jesus as his son, God guarantees to identify with him, in his words, in his works, and especially in his supreme act of love, the gift of life. Those who want to know the Father have only to contemplate this son.
It is significant that God recognizes him as his son at the very moment when Jesus places himself at the side of sinners. His is the only authentic face of the Father. The other faces, above all, that of the judge who sentences, are only the masks that people have applied to him.
The beloved. It refers to the account of the test Abraham underwent. He was asked to offer his son Isaac, the only one, the beloved (Gen 22:2,12,16). By applying this title to Jesus, God invites us not to consider him a king or a prophet like the others. He is, like Isaac, the only one, the beloved.
In whom I am well pleased. We already know this expression because it is in the first verse of today’s reading (Is 42:1). God declares that Jesus is the servant the prophet spoke about. He is the one sent to “establish law and justice” in the world. To fulfill this mission he will offer his life.
The voice from heaven reverses the judgment made by people and denies the Messianic expectations of the people of Israel who could not conceive of a humiliated, beaten and executed Messiah. The way God has fulfilled his promises was for everyone, including the Baptist, a surprise.
University of St. Thomas
St. Paul, MN, USA