Reflections on the readings for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
(Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7; Acts 10: 34-38 and Matthew 3: 13-17)
By Fr. George Berendt, PIME
The question to be answered by each and every one of us is: “When?” When did you know that joining the military and making it your career was the road you had to take in life? When did you know that risking your life and health as a cop or fire fighter would be your life’s passion? When did you know that this person was the one you wanted to wed, have children with, and with whom you would journey into old age? When did I know that the priesthood would be the route to take in life?
Life is filled with mystery. It is also filled with endless choices. Yet in the end when the when of our lives becomes the “now is the time” of our lives, that second becomes the anchor we fix our existence on and we begin our life’s journey. It’s just as that old philosophical medieval dictum says:
Life is always filled with endless possibilities. Nevertheless there is always that moment when we decide and the second we embrace what it is that will define our lifetimes. It’s that moment when each of us “takes the plunge.”
This Sunday we conclude the Church’s final celebration of the Advent-Christmas liturgical season. Our focus during these past several weeks has been on the upcoming birth of a child and the mysterious happenings around his early days. Now today, in the blink of an eye, the child disappears and an adult steps out from the mists of Nazareth.
We have hardly been allowed to digest the mystery of the birth of this special child when suddenly he is transformed from a child in a manger to a young man from Nazareth. It’s as if those thirty years spent in Nazareth didn’t exist or aren’t important. There is so much I want to know about this man but it is all left unsaid. Was Saint Matthew short of ink and paper and had to scrimp on what he could write? Perhaps he thought that these three decades were unimportant. Who knows? What happened to Jesus during these three decades? Inquiring minds want to know! I want to know!
I wonder…Did he, whose hands made the bark of the tree and shaped the leaf, and spread out their roots, need Joseph to teach him how to saw and plane a plank of wood? Did he, who in the beginning stirred the seas and laid out the river’s canal, need to help Mary fetch water for family use? Did he who receives all of humanity’s homage and praise need to be taught how to pray by the local rabbi? Did he whose throne was installed in the highest of the heavens – he who used the earth as his footstool – need to attend the local synagogue to pray or make the annual pilgrimage to the Temple and offer sacrifice?
For 30 years he hid away in a small, backward village unknown and unseen except by the local folks. He lived like them, learned a trade, helped his mom, and buried his pop. Like his neighbors he gave thanks for his daily bread and did household chores. Like them, he too walked the dusty paths of his village. He didn’t seem that unusual, did he?
All I can say with any assurance is that these hidden decades in the backwaters of Israel prepared him for this day.
At last “the appointed time” (Rom 5:6) had arrived and Jesus was ready to “take the plunge!” The time for Jesus’ manifestation and mission is now here. Leaving Mary and village friends behind, Jesus walked to the banks of the Jordan River – just like countless others before him – and told John to pour water on him.
But mind you: John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for sin and an external, public sign that a person desires to turn one’s life around. Now the Sinless One stands before him and tells him to pour the Jordan’s water over him as he did to many before. Stuttering, the Baptist mumbles: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?” To calm him Jesus replies by saying, “allow it for now.”
The time for Jesus had come but who would believe that someone so normal, so much like us, could be the Messiah, God’s Son come to earth? So enter the waters he did and as he came up “the heavens were opened up for him” and the Father and Spirit gave witness: “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” God the Father and the Holy Spirit both testified that Jesus is the One.
We who are the heirs to 2000 years of reflection easily accept Jesus as Emmanuel-God with us. After all, the good religious sisters who ran our Catholic school system and pounded into our heads our catechism lessons taught us so.
In John the Baptist’s age people still searched and waited for the coming Messiah. Not only did they wait, but their expectations and image of what the Messiah would be like and do were all over the board. Some expected a great king like David or Solomon; some awaited a powerful military general to lead a robust army against the detested Romans and drive them out; others expected a great person who would restore the wealth and prestige of ancient Israel.
Now this man from Nazareth steps forward. One just like the rest of them: poor, cracked working hands, simply dressed, dirty, and made of common clay just like everyone else. How could anyone expect Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah!?
Saint Catherine of Siena, that wonderful mystic and Doctor of the Church (1147-1380A.D.) says it so brilliantly when she writes:
O depth of love! What heart could keep from breaking at the sight of your greatness descending to the lowliness of our humanity? We are your image, and now by making yourself one with us you have become our image, veiling your eternal divinity in the wretched cloud and dung heap of Adam. And why? For love! You, God, became human and we have been made divine! (The Dialogue, 13)
How is it possible that anyone who must slog through the same “dung heap of Adam” and soil himself with our mess could be the Messiah? The heavens must testify! So Matthew shows how the heavens bear witness, how they manifest who Jesus really is.
Somehow those 30 hidden years in Nazareth prepared Jesus for this moment. It was now time for him to take the plunge. Walking to the waters he accepted the same washing his peers accepted, showing solidarity with sinful humanity. After he exited those sacred waters of the Jordan the heavens were rent open and God the Father and the Holy Spirit bore divine witness to whom Jesus really is. The Spirit descended and the Father spoke: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus was no ordinary clay!
With the imprimatur of the Father and the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ mission is now set to begin. Stepping out of the waters his mission begins or as Jesus himself will one day say: “I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me.” (Jn 5: 30). Jesus’ mission is to do the will of his heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit will drive him on in good times and in bad.
Perhaps Saint Paul can help us understand what is going on in Jesus’ life at this moment. He writes:
Today the Divine Child is the adult Son of God. The Divine Child has put aside the things of his childhood and enters his and our world as the adult Son of God on mission. Guided by the Spirit Jesus now sets out to fulfill the will of his Father and our world will never be the same again.