by Br Julian McDonald cfc
After Jesus was baptised, heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Luke 3, 15-16, 21-22
To grasp the full significance of today’s gospel-reading, it is important for us, once again, to look at context. The first two chapters of Luke (the infancy narratives) serve as a prologue. Then Luke launches into the body of his Gospel, describing the mission of Jesus and its impact. He begins by introducing John the Baptist and his ability to draw crowds, despite his “fire and brimstone” sermons. He then turns his attention to what the Baptist effectively called the “main event” – the arrival on the scene of the one for whose coming he claimed to be preparing. With a touch of irony, Luke observes that God chose for a messenger none of the “big shots” of the day – Tiberius Caesar (Emperor of Rome), Pilate (Governor of Judea), Herod (Tetrarch of Galilee), Philip (Tetrarch of Iturea & Trachonitis), Annas & Caiphas (Jewish High Priests) – but the eccentric John the Baptist: “The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness” (Luke 3, 2). Luke then proceeds to describe how John challenged his audiences to shake themselves out of their complacency, to repent of their sins and to come forward and be baptized. In contrast, Jesus appeared without fanfare and humbly joined those lining up to be baptized by John, who baulked at the prospect of baptizing the one for whose arrival he had been preparing. – the Messiah, the Christ of God. John described himself as the signpost directing people to Jesus, whom the Evangelists eventually identified as “the light of the world”, the very centre of human history.
The focus of today’s gospel-reading is the self-effacing, humble baptism of Jesus, an action that he chose as his way of identifying deeply with the very people whose lives he would set out to transform by revealing to them God’s love for them. Having been baptized, Jesus sat quietly in prayer. As he prayed, there came what can only be described as a moment of epiphany, a revelation for him personally: “Heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily shape, like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you’” (Luke 3, 21-22).
The point of this is that Jesus, as fully human as we are, had to discern through personal prayer, his own vocation in life. Like us, he had moments of insight and revelation, when the way forward became clearer to him. Luke describes one of those moments graphically. It was a moment when, conscious of God’s Spirit guiding him, Jesus committed himself to his mission to his own people. Because we know the conclusion to which all the Gospel writers came, namely that Jesus was truly divine and truly human, I suspect that we more readily accept his divinity, and gloss quickly over his humanity. One of the great Vatican II documents is The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). In it we read a statement of how Jesus lived his humanity as we do: “He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved”. Implied in this is the fact that he had to discern his vocation in life and make decisions about how to live it out. He knew his choices had to express the love in his heart, and he learned that he had the Hebrew Scriptures and God’s love to guide him.
In addition, we have the books of the New Testament to guide us, and the assurance that God loves us, too. Given that most of us were baptized in infancy, there were almost certainly no epiphanies or moments of revelation of which we or our sponsors were conscious at the time. However, today’s gospel-reading is an invitation to us to reflect upon the significance of our incorporation into the Christian community. While a Baptism certificate is a record of our enrolment in that community, the only authentic measure of our commitment to what we profess is the extent to which we translate the Gospels into practical action.
When Jesus sat in prayer following his Baptism by John, inspired by God’s Spirit, he came to the sudden realisation that he had just been claimed as God’s beloved Son. In our Baptism, we, too, were claimed as God’s beloved daughters and sons to carry on the mission of Jesus to a world in need. Fidelity to the mission entrusted to him by God led Jesus to the Cross. Fidelity to the word of God that came to him in the wilderness led John the Baptist to confront Herod who, in a moment of moral weakness, had John executed. While commitment to our baptismal promises may not lead to bloodshed, we can be sure that it will lead us to some sticky moments. Calling for justice, protesting for the release of asylum seekers, working to assure that refugees are treated with dignity will meet with opposition. That kind of action is demanded by the Gospel.