Sunday, January 8, 2017
The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan
1. Opening prayer
“We praise you, invisible Father, giver of immortality: you are the source of life, the source of light, the source of every grace and truth, lover of humankind and lover of the poor, who reconciles all with you and draw all to you through the coming of your beloved Son. Make us living people, grant us your Spirit of light so that we may know you, the true One and the One whom you sent Jesus Christ.” (Serapion’s Anaphora)
This Gospel fragment (Mt 3:13-17) is part of a narrative section of Matthew the Evangelist, the section that introduces the public life of Jesus. After the flight into Egypt, Jesus lives in Nazareth. Now, as an adult, we find him on the banks of the river Jordan. The meeting of the two is part of the concluding section dedicated to John the Baptist. Anyone who wishes to go deeper into the personality of John and his message (Mt 3:1-12 has already been presented to us in the liturgy of the second Sunday of Advent) needs to keep in mind the whole of chapter 3 of Matthew. Our passage concentrates especially on the acknowledgement of the divinity of Christ at the time of his baptism. God the Father reveals the identity of Jesus.
b) A division of the text as an aid to its reading:
Matthew 3:13 : setting
Matthew 3:14-15 : dialogue John-Jesus
Matthew 3: 16-17 : epiphany/theophany
c) The text:
13 Then Jesus appeared: he came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. 14 John tried to dissuade him, with the words, 'It is I who need baptism from you, and yet you come to me!' 15 But Jesus replied, 'Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that uprightness demands.' Then John gave in to him. 16 And when Jesus had been baptised he at once came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. 17 And suddenly there was a voice from heaven, 'This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.'
3. A moment of silent prayer
so that the Word of God may penetrate our hearts and enlighten our lives.
4. Some questions
to help us in our meditation and prayer.
a) Why does Jesus “appear” after his hidden life in Nazareth?
b) How does awareness of his identity and mission grow?
c) Have I, at some time, taken on something new in my life?
d) Who or which experience has most revealed to me my identity, vocation and mission?
e) What does the memory of my baptism mean to me?
a) A key to the reading:
Together with a historical-chronological reading of the passage, the episode of the baptism of Jesus and his meeting with John before he begins his public life, we need to keep in mind also a symbolical reading, assisted by the Fathers of the East, a symbolism that is the framework of this liturgical season of Christmas and which concludes with the full manifestation of God as man: a synthesis of the manifestation-epiphany of the Son of God in the flesh.
b) A commentary on the text:
Mt 13: 13 The adult Jesus
After John “appears” on the scene (13:1), Jesus of Nazareth, where he spent his childhood and early youth (Mt 12:23), goes to the river Jordan. As a good Israelite, he watches the authentic religious movements that spring up among the people. He shows that he approves of the work of John and decides to be baptised with water, not, of course, to receive forgiveness for sins, but to unite himself and share fully in the expectations and hopes of all men and women. It is not humankind that goes to Him, but He who goes towards humankind, according to the logic of the incarnation.
Mt 13:14-15 the dialogue of John with Jesus
John’s attempt to prevent the baptism of Jesus is his acknowledgement of the difference between the two and an awareness of the new (the New Covenant) making its appearance. “The one who follows me… will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire… his winnowing-fan is in his hand… will clear… will gather… will burn…” (vv.11-12). Jesus’ attitude is still one of submitting to God’s saving plan (in this way, do all that righteousness demands), respecting the manner (in humility-kenosis) and the times (the time-kairos). We also see the difference between the two from their families of origin (priestly for John), from the places (Jerusalem for John, Nazareth for Jesus) from the manner of conception (a proclamation to the father, Zachary, in the old style; a proclamation to the mother, Mary), the parents’ ages (those of John old). Everything points to the passage from the old to the new. Matthew prepares the readers for the newness of the Christ: “you have heard it said, but I say to you” (Mt 5).
Mt 13:16-17 the presentation of God the Father and the Holy Spirit
In Matthew’s Gospel we have the solemn “adoration of the Magi” in acknowledgement of the royalty and divinity of Jesus. Luke also adds the acknowledgement of Elisabeth (Lk 1:42-43), of the angels (Lk 2:13-14) of the shepherds (Lk 2:20), and of the old Simeon and Anna (Lk 2:30; 28). All the Evangelists record the proclamation of the divine identity of Jesus by God the Father and the Holy Spirit present in the form of a dove. Matthew says clearly “This is” not “you are” my Son, the Beloved. Jesus is divine by nature and also the new Adam, the beginning of a new humanity reconciled with God as well as nature reconciled with God by means of Christ’s immersion in the waters. The heavens are reopened after being closed for such a long time by sin, and earth is blessed.
The descent of Christ into the waters prefigures his descent into hell and the words of the Psalmist come true (Ps 74: 13-14), he crushes the head of the foe. The Baptism not only prefigures, but inaugurates and anticipates Satan’s defeat and the liberation of Adam.
However, it will not be easy to recognise the Messiah in his weakness. John himself has some doubts when in prison, and he sends his disciples to ask “are you the one who is to come or have we got to wait for someone else?” (Mt 11:3).
6. For those who wish to go deeper into the liturgical and ecumenical aspects
In the tradition of the Eastern churches, the Baptism of Jesus is the most important liturgical feast of the Christmas cycle. On 6 January they celebrate together the baptism, birth, visit of the Magi, the wedding feast of Cana, as one fact. Rather than the historical development of the life of Jesus, they stress his theological-saving relevance. They do not dwell on the sentimental aspect, but on the historical manifestation of God and his acknowledgement as Lord.
Cyril of Jerusalem says that Jesus gives the waters of baptism “the colour of his divinity” (III mystagogic catechesis, 1).
Gregory Naziazen writes that the creation of this world and the creation of the spiritual world, once foes, reunite in friendship, and we humans, united in one choir with the angels, partake of their praises (PG 46,599).
The descent into the waters corresponds to the descent into the bowels of the earth symbolised by the birth in a cave. The destructive waters become waters of salvation for the just.
The Old Testament readings of the liturgical Vespers recall the saving waters: the Spirit hovers over the waters at the time of creation (Gn 1), the waters of the Nile save Moses (Ex 2), the waters open for the people of Israel to go through (Ex 14), the waters of Mara become sweet (Ex 15), the waters of the Jordan open before the Arc (Jos 3), the waters of the Jordan heal Naaman the leper (2Kings 5) etc. Jesus then at the wedding feast in Cana transforms water into wine (Jn 2) as a sign that the time of salvation has come.
At this feast in the eastern liturgy, there is a tradition of blessing water in a spring or river by immersing the cross three times (the triple baptismal immersion). This recalls the prophet Isaiah: let the wilderness and the dry lands exult (Is 35:1-10), come to the water all you who are thirsty (Is 55: 1-13), draw water joyfully (Is 12:3-6).
7. Psalm 114 (113)
When Israel came out of Egypt,
the House of Jacob from a people of foreign speech,
Judah became his sanctuary,
and Israel his domain.
The sea fled at the sight,
the Jordan turned back,
the mountains skipped like rams,
the hills like sheep.
Sea, what makes you flee?
Jordan, why turn back?
Why skip like rams, you mountains?
Why like sheep, you hills?
Tremble, earth, at the coming of the Lord,
at the coming of the God of Jacob,
who turns rock into pool, flint into fountain.
8. Closing prayer
Jesus, source of life, who comes to cancel Adam’s sentence, in the Jordan you killed hatred; grant us the peace that is beyond all thought. Resplendent Word sent by the Father, after you have uprooted the sins of mortals, come and dissipate the long and sad hours of the night, and by your baptism, let your children rise resplendent from the waves of the Jordan. May the human race clothe itself in white, come out of the waters as children of God and transform creation into the image of the creator. (From oriental liturgical “chants”)