The Gospel writers report the Baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan with various nuances. Today’s text from Mark emphasizes the disclosure of Jesus’ relationship with the Father and the Spirit: the dove descending upon him, and the Father speaking directly to Him – “You are my beloved Son . . .” . Mark also points out the mission or salvific work of Jesus: “He will baptize you with the Spirit.” One way of imagining Jesus’ mission is to see everything he does as “pouring out” or unleashing a “drowning flood” of compassion upon those who follow or listen to him.
Another way of imaging or “symbol seeing” the great mystery of Jesus’ humanity and divinity is through the option of the first reading that we have from 1 John. One of John’s favorite ways of expressing faith is to symbolize humanity by water – we are made up of mostly water; and divinity by blood – the life source for the human. So the writer of 1 John asserts: “So there are three that testify, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and the three are of one accord.” The testimony is from God in three ways, the Holy Spirit, and both Jesus’ human nature and His divine nature.
Yet other ways are given in the first two options for the first reading – both from Isaiah. In Chapter 42 the prophetic writers emphasize the mission of bringing the justice of God upon the earth. The Justice of God (which only God can rightly dispense) is not like human justice – in that it is not comparative. It doesn’t balance one group with another; it isn’t about “equality.” Rather Divine Justice looks to the need and longing of each and every person and brings to him/her the fulfillment of needs and hopes: light from darkness, freedom from imprisonment, sight from blindness. Such justice is not imposed (a bruised reed it will not break) but comes as welcome healing and consolation. In Chapter 55 the writers place the emphasis on the effectiveness of God’s activity within the created order. What God sends forth (His Spirit) embeds itself in creation and brings forth fruit – accomplishing the Will of God - but that accomplishment is in the manner of the created order (seeds bring grain etc). Here the prophet uses the image of the word that goes forth from the mouth of God – a command is one of the ways that a personal will operates – so God’s command is the operation of the Divine Will. Jesus was seen by the early Fathers of the Church as the incarnation of that Divine Command in human life. What Jesus DID was to operationalize the will of God in his very human condition.
The reading from one of the sermons of Peter (Acts 10) points to the way the Apostles understood that while Jesus taught the Father’s will by his being, his actions and his words, it is the responsibility of the Church to teach who and what Jesus IS and DOES for us by the Will of the Father. If we can enter this mystery of Jesus’ Divine existence within the human condition we can begin to grasp what it is that Jesus has made possible for us in the Paschal Mystery – that we who are only human can enter into the mystery of God’s existence by virtue of the work of Jesus’ unleashing of the Spirit. In his human and divine being, Jesus accomplished and accomplishes the will of the Father in divinizing us.
The problem comes with the fact that it is easier to collapse any tension than to live in it. Thus, historically, members of the Church – including its highest leaders – have believed more in either the divinity of Jesus (more common) or his humanity (less common, but still devastating) such that the opposite pole was either simply ignored or even denied. But this tension is so important to the Christian faith that if either side of the polarity is ignored or denied the rest of the Christian mystery simply is meaningless or untenable. We have to recognize that it is within his human nature that Jesus discloses the Divine, and mysteriously this continues in our time because Christ continues to disclose his divine presence in the very human relationships and behavior of the Baptized.
By returning to the importance of the Feast of the Baptism, we recognize that here Jesus goes beyond simply being born into the human condition; here he identified utterly with us in both our human limitedness and our sin, took our sin to destroy it and its hold over us. By embracing our sin in this way, Jesus also embraced his violent and unjust death – one of the many consequences of sin. Thus Jesus’ baptism – his entry into the water of death (chaos, sin) transforms that water into the water of life for us (grace, divine favor). No wonder we sing in response to this good news: “You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation” (Is 12) or “The Lord will bless his people with peace” (Ps 29).
As we pick up the ordinariness of our human life on this January day, with the festival behind us and Easter still distant we can cling to the awareness that the Justice and compassion of God is made evident in the warp and woof of this very ordinary day – because Jesus, our brother and our Lord – chose by his Baptism to be disclosed in it.
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