The Baptism of the Lord, Year C



The Baptism of the Lord, Year C

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Response: Ps 104:1b-2, 3-4, 24-25, 27-30; Second Reading: Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Gospel: Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

The first reading is the opening oracle of the part of Isaiah known as the Book of Consolation, chapters 40-55 of Isaiah. The time is 540-538 B.C. The people of Israel have been in exile in Babylon from 70 to 42 years depending on which wave of exiles were marched off to Babylon (Iraq today) between 598-582 B.C. The yearning of Israel for its homeland is expressed in Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion (Jerusalem). On the willows there we hung up our harps.” Babylon was now in decline. Persia under King Cyrus the Great is on the march resulting in the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and beginning dominance of the Persian Empire. The prophet known as Second or Deutero-Isaiah enters biblical history. He is a theologian and keen observer of political events. It was well known that Cyrus, devoted to his gods, had a policy of letting exiled peoples return to their homelands and rebuild their cities and temples to worship their own gods. His motive was to win favor for these so-called gods. To him, the Lord God of Israel was just another god to be placated.

Second Isaiah has a message of consolation. “Be comforted! Be consoled, My People, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry out to her, ‘Your time of servanthood is ended.’” They would be going home. In rousing metaphors, the prophet-poet speaks of building a superhighway through deserts and across mountains as a path homeward to Jerusalem. All four gospels will use these ancient words in some form to legitimize the mission of John the Baptizer five centuries later. The gospels connect this passage from Second Isaiah with John’s baptism of water for repentance of sins. Therefore, our first reading is an appropriate choice for the liturgical celebration of the baptism of Jesus by John. The prophet’s message of consolation becomes emotionally charged as he describes the tenderness of the mighty Lord God’s loving pastoral care of his people, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will gather the lambs in his arms, carry them close to his heart, and gently lead the pregnant ewes.”

The Responsorial Psalm 104 is a hymn praising the Creator and proclaiming the glories of creation. It is not clear how this Psalm responds to the first reading. Despite this lack of harmony, there are beautiful metaphors which deserve to be noticed. The Psalmist sings that God is clothed in light as with a cloak. He constructed his palace on the waters (a yacht?). The clouds are his chariot. He travels on the wings of the wind. The winds are his messengers. Fire is his servant. Our Psalm closes with the words that forms the basis of a Christian prayer to call upon the Holy Spirit. “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.”

The second reading is from the Letter to Titus, one of St. Paul’s Gentile converts. The little we know of him tells us that his grave personality served as a counter to Paul’s mercurial personality. He accompanied Paul to the Council of Jerusalem in 49 A.D. Paul sent him on a delicate mission to restore peace between Paul and the Christians of Corinth. While there, he also served as Paul’s agent for a collection of alms to support the Christian community at Jerusalem. Selection of this reading for the feast of Jesus’ baptism was probably determined by these words, “Jesus, who gave himself up for us . . . to cleanse for himself a people of his own . . .,” and “He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewed us in the Holy Spirit . . . .” Thus we see implicit an appropriate interpretation of Jesus’ submission to a baptism of repentance — that at his baptism he began what he completed by his death on the cross — taking upon himself the sins of the world.

Three gospels describe the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptizer. Our main concern is Luke’s version in this year dedicated to his gospel. It is, however, helpful to take a look at the versions of Mark and Matthew. Mark’s version is the earliest and the simplest. After he had recorded his version, Matthew and Luke, writing about 15 years later, apparently found it helpful to make some changes. Mark had stated very concisely that Jesus came from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan. When Jesus came out of the water, “the heavens were ripped open and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove.” Next, a voice from heaven, “You are my beloved Son. In you I am well pleased.” That’s it. Matthew next. Something bothers him. Didn’t Mark write that John’s baptism was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?” Yet Scripture is clear about the sinlessness of Jesus. See John 8:46; 1 John 3:5; Hebrews 4:15. When Jesus approaches, the Baptizer objects, “I need to be baptized by you.” But Jesus commands him to just do it!

Luke’s handling of this delicate matter is even stranger. In the sequence of events in his gospel, John the Baptizer is first imprisoned by Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee. Then Luke writes, “When all the people were baptized, and when Jesus had been baptized . . . .” It may not be noticed by readers, but Luke cannot bring himself to openly declare that John, the lesser, baptized the one whom John himself had proclaimed as “one mightier than I, the string of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” Does he make any other changes in Mark’s version? In Luke’s version, Mark’s “Spirit” becomes the “Holy Spirit” and that Jesus “was praying” when the heavens opened for the descent of the Spirit. It should be noted that the Gospel of John completely omits John’s baptism of Jesus but does include the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus. So why was Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God without blemish, baptized at all? A fourth century hymn by Prudentius in the Roman Breviary gives this answer, “The Lamb from heaven touched the Jordan’s cleansing waters, and washing us, took away sins that were not his.” Jesus began at his baptism what he completed on the Cross. True to its style, the Gospel of John omits the event (the baptism of Jesus), but gives us the meaning in this statement of the Baptizer, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”