January 13, 2019
This Sunday feast of the Baptism of the Lord signals the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of “Ordinary Time.” The church’s liturgical calendar now begins its long reflection on the mission of Jesus that will be viewed this year through the prism of Luke’s Gospel.
In each of the Gospels, the public ministry of Jesus begins with this inaugural scene in which Jesus is plunged into the Jordan River by John the Baptist. The Gospels make a clear distinction between the ritual John performs and the impact of Jesus’ own mission. John, the fierce desert prophet, had, in fact, used the fundamental symbolism of an immersion or bath to signal Israel’s need for a new life of fidelity to God. Performing that ritual on the edge of the Judean desert and in the waters of the Jordan only added to the dramatic symbolism: ancient Israel had crossed at this same place and through this same river into the promised land after their long desert trek from slavery to freedom.
But, as John the Baptist testifies, he baptizes in “water” but the baptism that Jesus will bring is “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John is the herald; Jesus is the event. As the gospel reading today makes clear, Jesus brings into the world the unique and transforming power of God’s Spirit. In Luke’s version, after Jesus had been baptized and while he was praying, a storm of the Spirit takes place—heaven opens and the Spirit descends on Jesus. The divine “voice from heaven” declares, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
More than any of the other Gospels, Luke emphasizes the dynamic power of the Spirit that drives Jesus and his mission. That Spirit of God had already made its presence felt in Luke’s infancy narrative, with the Spirit hovering over Mary at the moment of Jesus’ conception, with that same Spirit moving the hearts of the witnesses to Jesus’ advent—Zachary and Elizabeth, the shepherds in their field, and Anna and Simeon in the Temple. That same Spirit would be the animating force of Jesus’ own ministry beginning in the synagogue of Nazareth and manifesting its power in Jesus’ healings and teaching.
And emboldened by that same Spirit, after the resurrection the apostles find the courage to proclaim the gospel of God’s love to the world. We hear an anticipation of this in the second reading for today, from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter, moved by the Spirit of Jesus, brings the gospel to the Roman centurion Cornelius—a great turning point in the mission of the early church. As if for the first time, the devout Jew Peter realizes that “God shows no partiality” and embraces “every nation.”
The reality of God’s dynamic Spirit is a deep-running biblical motif. The first reading today is from the prophet Isaiah who anticipates the anointed one who would liberate Israel as one filled with the Spirit: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit.” This spirit-filled servant will be “a light for the nations,” who will “open the eyes of the blind,” bring prisoners out from their confinement, and free “from the dungeon those who live in darkness.”
The Hebrew word for Spirit is “ruah”—it can mean “breath,” or “wind” or “life” itself. The same is true of the Greek word pneuma. We can glimpse in this word itself how the Scriptures view the mission of Jesus. He has come to bring vibrant life to the world—healing, reconciling, restoring justice, creating peace. It is the beginning of this mission portrayed in the Gospels that the church celebrates today.
And in reflecting on the unique baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, we also learn the meaning of our own baptism. We, too, are God’s “beloved.” We, too, are given abundant life. And we, too, as with Jesus, are to bring that divine Spirit of healing and justice into our world.