BY FATHER DONALD DILGER
Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, Year B
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Psalm 29:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11b; Acts 10:34-38; Mark 1:1-7
The first reading is from the part of the Book of Isaiah called Deutero-(or Second) Isaiah. Ancient editors added the oracles, chapters 40-55, of this unnamed prophet to the oracles of Isaiah of Jerusalem, chapters 1-39. An additional section of the Book of Isaiah, chapters 56-66, is called Trito (Third) Isaiah. Our reading today from Second Isaiah is the first of four poems or psalms or hymns known as the Songs of the Servant of the Lord. The four are found in chapters 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12. These songs were isolated from the rest of the oracles by a German scholar, Bernhard Duhm, in 1892. Much of the material in these songs describes the sufferings of an unnamed Servant of the Lord. The identity of the Servant is debated. Although at times Israel as a people is clearly the Servant, mostly the reference is to an individual. The most likely candidate to be the Servant of the Lord is the prophet himself, Second Isaiah.
Our concern is the Christian interpretation of these songs as being predictive of the conception, birth, life, mission, suffering, death and final vindication/exaltation of Jesus through his resurrection. Some of the details of these songs are so close to the gospel’s details of Jesus’ suffering and death that the author is sometimes called the Fifth Evangelist (gospel author). St. Paul, our four gospels and other New Testament documents did interpret them as predictive of Jesus. They formed their theology about Jesus under the influence of these four songs, especially in the Passion Narratives. How does this first of the Servant Songs fit into a liturgy of the baptism of Jesus? The song speaks of the Servant of the Lord in these words, “with whom I am well-pleased” and “upon whom I have put my Spirit.” The first phrase echoes the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. The second phrase echoes the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus after he was baptized. The rest of the words of this first of the four songs find new life in the gospels’ narrative of the life and mission of Jesus.
The selection of Psalm 29 as the Responsorial Psalm is determined by these words, “The voice of the Lord is over the waters, the Lord over vast waters. The voice of the Lord is mighty. The voice of the Lord is majestic.” The assemblers of the liturgical texts may have seen in these words an Old Testament echo of the voice from heaven at the water-baptism of Jesus. One may also include the words of the third verse of the Response Psalm as echoing the baptism of Jesus, “The God of glory thunders. The Lord is enthroned above the flood.” The people respond, “The Lord will bless his people with peace.”
The second reading is part of a sermon attributed to Simon Peter. The background to the sermon: Luke probably wrote the Acts of Apostles for the Church of Antioch, Syria. We know the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were at odds in that Christian community. Luke attempts to heal the division with the story of the conversion of Cornelius, a Roman official. Peter has a vision of a horn of plenty coming down from the sky. It was filled with ritually clean and ritually unclean foods. A voice tells Peter to eat. He refused because he observed kosher. The voice: “What God has made clean do not call unclean.” Through a vision Cornelius was told to fetch Peter to his home. This he did. Peter’s vision was not so much about ritually clean or unclean food, but rather about ritually unclean people, Gentiles. In an address to the household of Cornelius Peter speaks of the baptism of John in reference to Jesus, “God anointed him with the Holy Spirit . . . .” Thus the reason for selecting this reading for the liturgy of the baptism of Jesus.
The gospel reading is Mark’s version of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptizer. Matthew and Luke, writing some years after Mark, will expand Mark’s version. The first part of Mark’s very brief story is simple. The Baptizer was engaged in his ministry somewhere along the Jordan River. His fame reached Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. John baptized Jesus as he did crowds of others, but with different results. Mark tells us the sky (heaven) was ripped open. One thinks of the violence of Luke’s Pentecost story in Acts, also an action of the Spirit. The Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove. A voice from the sky. “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well-pleased.” Earlier in his gospel. Mark told us that John’s baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Years before Mark wrote his gospel Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:21, described Jesus as “one who knew not sin.” After Mark’s gospel, the sinlessness of Jesus is proclaimed in 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5; Hebrews 4:15.
If the sinlessness of Jesus was common catechesis, why was Jesus baptized? Mark sees no problem here, but Matthew, Luke and John will all deal with this problem each in his own way. A good answer to the above question might be this. What Jesus began at his baptism he would complete by his death on the cross — taking upon himself the sins of the world. The Gospel of John, with an opaque reference to Jesus’ baptism, seems to proclaim this teaching when he depicts the Baptizer saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Why God chose the form of a dove to illustrate the Spirit has never been satisfactorily solved. One attempt at a solution: a dove was a familiar symbol of the divine in ancient religions of the areas which by the time of the composition of our gospels were already teeming with Christians — Syria and Asia Minor. Thus, the dove is a familiar symbol to express the presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus. The voice from the sky borrows part of its proclamation from today’s first reading, “in whom (you) I am well-pleased.” Through this link with the Servant Song, Mark proclaims Jesus as that Servant of the Lord described above in the comments on the first reading. Did Mark proclaim the Holy Trinity? Whether or not he was conscious of such a proclamation, they are in the baptismal scene. An author does not have to be aware of what the Author intends.