The Baptism of the Lord, Year A
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Psalm 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17
The first reading is from the second part of the Book of Isaiah, that is, chapters 40-55, also known as Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah. In 1892 a German biblical scholar, Bernhard Duhm, isolated four poems or songs from the rest of the material in these chapters. These poems have become known as the Servant Songs. They speak of a “servant of the Lord” a beloved and chosen one. It is not clear whom the prophet identifies as this servant of the Lord. At times the servant seems to be Israel as a people or nation, the prophet himself, the Persian king Cyrus the Great, the prophet Jeremiah, etc. The authors of our four gospels and other New Testament documents often use the servant songs as predictive of Jesus’ mission, his birth, ministry, death and exaltation. Are these songs predictive of Jesus or did their obvious influence on our New Testament authors cause them to compose their theologies of Jesus so that the four Servant Songs seem to be predictive of Jesus and his mission? Whatever the original identity of the servant may have been in the mind of the prophet, the liturgy clearly directs us to think of him as Jesus.
Our first reading is the first of the four poems. The servant is called “my servant whom I uphold,” “my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I will put my spirit.” He will bring justice to the Gentiles (nations), will be of quiet, peaceful and gentle demeanor. The Lord took him by the hand, formed him, made him a covenant, a light to the nations. He will open the eyes of the blind, bring prisoners out of confinement, and deliver out of the dungeon those who live in darkness. Reading, hearing, meditating on this poem will turn the thoughts of a Christian to the story of Jesus in our four gospels. The reason for the choice of this poem as the first reading for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord rests on the words, “my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my Spirit.” For three gospel versions of Jesus’ baptism, these words became a reference to the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus at his baptism, and a reference to the words of the Voice, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I as well pleased.”
The Responsorial Psalm 29 is originally a hymn of praise to the Lord of the storm addressed to the singers of the heavenly court of God. He directs and controls the waters (the naturally chaotic movement of the sea). His voice (thunder) is mighty and majestic. At the sound of the thunder (his voice) all will say, “Glory.” He is enthroned as king forever above the chaos of flooding waters. The choice of verses of this Psalm for the liturgy of the baptism of Jesus or to respond to the first reading is not obvious. The choice may have been determined by the themes of water and the voice of the Lord. Both water and voice are elements of the story of Jesus’ baptism.
The second reading is from Acts of Apostles. By selecting a brief excerpt from a speech attributed to St. Peter, we are left wondering. What was the occasion? Who is Cornelius? Answers are available. Peter was praying on the roof (flat roof) of a house. He became hungry and fell into a trance. He experiences a vision. A horn of plenty filled with all kinds of animals or meat. Clearly the author intends the meat to be both clean and unclean, kosher or not kosher. A Voice: “Rise, Peter, kill and eat!” Peter responds as if to say, “Read my lips, Lord. I have never eaten unclean (unkosher) foods!” The Voice: “Do not call unclean what I have made clean.” The vision repeats twice more. In the meantime, a Roman military official experienced a vision. A voice: “Send for Simon Peter!” The voice gives travel directions, the first GPS. Cornelius’ delegation arrives at the house where Peter is lodging. They ask Peter to accompany them to Cornelius’ house. Peter now recognizes that the vision of clean and unclean foods was meant to teach him that there are no ‘unclean’ people. The speech of our second reading follows. The selection of this second reading was determined by these words, “How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit….”
Matthew’s version of the baptism of Jesus is one of three versions. Mark’s version was the original. Matthew expanded Mark’s very brief version. Why? Matthew composed his gospel 15-20 years after Mark. By the time of Matthew’s composition Christians had developed a distaste toward the tradition that John the Baptizer baptized his own Lord, the lesser baptizing the greater. John’s baptism was a baptism proclaiming forgiveness of sins. But early Christian theology already rejected the idea that Jesus needed forgiveness of sins. He had none. How does Matthew handle these problems, since he was not ready to omit John’s baptism of Jesus like the still later Gospel of John does? The solution is clever. When Jesus approaches the Baptizer for baptism, Matthew portrays John saying, “I need to be baptized by you, but you come to me?” Jesus commands John to baptize him, “and John consented” but only by divine command.
Since Jesus is elsewhere in the New Testament proclaimed as the sinless one, for example, “He committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:22), why was the sinless one baptized with the “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?” Various reasons have been proposed: divine approval of John’s baptismal ministry; by being baptized with water Jesus gave power to all the waters of the earth to be used for the sacrament of baptism. Most importantly, Jesus is portrayed as submitting himself to baptism just as all the sinners around him, they for their own sins, he for their sins. At his baptism he already began the process of taking upon himself the sins of the world. In our catechism we learned that there are three kinds of baptism; water, desire and blood. His baptism by John was his baptism of water. In Luke 12:50 Jesus says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, (his suffering and death), and I am in anguish until it is accomplished.” That was his baptism of desire. His martyrdom on the cross was his baptism of blood.