by Br Julian McDonald
After Jesus was baptized…a voice came from the heavens, saying: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3, 13-17
In the first of his three volumes, all entitled Table Talk, scripture commentator and theologian, Jay Cormier (no relation to Robert Cormier, well-known for his award winning book for young adults. The Chocolate War), tells the story of six-year-old Mickey, who had had a bad day. He’d had a disagreement with his little sister, then was in trouble for knocking over a pot of paint as he rushed to class. To cap it all, the lunch his mother had packed for him was a meat-loaf sandwich. And he hated meat-loaf. When he got home, there was nobody to play with, so he found himself alone pushing his beloved dump-truck through the sand in the back yard. Then his father appeared from nowhere, but not before being worded up by his wife on the disastrous day Mickey had had. Without a word, his dad squatted down in the sand, picked up a small bucket, filled it with sand and upturned it at the end of the rut Mickey had cut through the sand. His dad followed that up with two more sand-castles. Then, for the first time that day, Mickey smiled. The two of them spent the next hour or so transforming the sand pile into a network of roads and bridges.
While we all know that metaphors, similes and images limp a little, today’s gospel story of Jesus lining up to be baptized by John is a bit like Micky’s father getting down into the sand-pit with his son. Jesus, Emmanuel, “God-with-us” identified with humanity in every way he could find in order to assure us that he is with us in everything we experience – in our successes and failures, in our struggles and triumphs, in our joys and sorrows, in our moments of insight and in our dilemmas and doubts.
It makes sense to me to see the baptism of Jesus and the voice from heaven which accompanied it as the crowning point of the message of Epiphany – it is the completion of the revelation that Jesus is God among us. Matthew uses this baptism event to demonstrate that Jesus is the fulfilment of what Isaiah prophesied: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights. I have sent my spirit upon him, he will bring fair judgement to the nations (Isaiah 42, 1). Matthew had borrowed the baptism story from Mark, but improved on it. The first few chapters of Matthew are the story of Jesus’ birth and infancy, but a story in which he makes it clear that Joseph and Mary knew who Jesus really was. There is no indication of this in Mark. In his story of Jesus’ baptism, the voice from heaven is addressed directly to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you” (Mark 1, 11). This is presented as news for Jesus. However, in Matthew the heavenly voice says: “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him” (Matthew 3, 17). This announcement is not directed to Jesus. Its purpose was to convey a message to the crowd who had gathered to watch Jesus being baptized. Clearly, Matthew realised that Jesus had no need of baptism. So he included the exchange between John and Jesus in which John protested that he should be the one being baptized by Jesus. But Jesus refused to give in and suggested that John should proceed to baptize him: “Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that uprightness demands” (Matthew 3, 15). In other words, Jesus was explaining that his baptism was really the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy; that what had been in the process of being developed by God over centuries was finally coming to completion.
So, this story is much less about the actual baptism of Jesus than it is about the revelation of who Jesus really is. Simultaneously, both John and the crowd who heard the voice from heaven are informed of Jesus’ identity.
The Jews of the time were familiar with baptism as an initiation rite only for those who were seeking entry into Judaism from some other religion. Seeing themselves as descendants of Abraham and members of God’s chosen people, the Jews grew up with a sense of entitlement. They knew they were assured of salvation. However, the baptism that John was proclaiming was not a baptism of initiation. Rather it was a baptism of repentance, a public statement of intention to clean up one’s life and a commitment to conversion of heart.
One of the risks of directing our focus at this time of the year to God’s becoming one of us in the person of Jesus is to give our attention to what Jesus gave up by accepting the limitations of becoming human. I suggest that we might do better to look more positively at the implications of the incarnation by turning our attention to what God has taken on in the person of Jesus. In Jesus God has taken us on as God’s very own work of art. Jesus revealed to us that we are much more than witnesses to God’s glory but rather that we are God’s glory. As St Irenaeus put it: “The glory of God is men and women fully alive.”
In the person of Jesus, God has come to be with us in our part of the “sandbox” that is the world, inviting and encouraging us to see that we can reflect God’s love to others and join together with God in the gigantic process of transforming ourselves and our sisters and brothers into a community of hope, compassion, selflessness and love.
This Sunday’s gospel reading also carries an invitation for us to reflect on the meaning and significance of our own baptism. Because it initiates us into the Christian community, it ranks first among the sacraments. It takes precedence over ordination and marriage, and without it one cannot participate in the other sacraments, become a deacon or make profession of religious vows. But like all the other sacraments, it does not work magic. Everyone who is baptised has to work at living authentically his or her commitment to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. We can therefore liken baptism to a seed that has to germinate and be nourished by a suitable environment, be cared for and even pruned and be trained to negotiate obstacles. We have to realise that, in baptism, we have been planted in God’s love. As a consequence we have to reflect that love to everyone we encounter. In doing so, we become tightly linked to one another, forming Christian community. With Jesus and all our brothers and sisters, we are individually and collectively identified as God’s beloved. Being loved calls for a loving response. That kind of response does not happen automatically. But it develops with practice and commitment. Others will see it only in our actions. It is not always easy to make a decision to reach out in love to those we encounter every day at home, at work, at school at university and on public transport. But they’re the kinds of demands to which we commit ourselves when we decide to look baptized.