Isaiah 42:1–4, 6–7; Acts 10:34–38; Matthew 3:13–17
Last week, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. The scriptural context of our celebration was the visit of the Magi to the house of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph some time after Jesus was born. But the feast itself represents something greater: the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. The shepherds who visited the Christ child on Christmas day represented the am ha-arez—the people of the land. These were the unschooled Jews of the time, possibly considered unrighteous by the teachers, scribes, and religious authorities.
The two feasts together represent the revelation of Christ to those who are traditionally outsiders to the righteous Jews. Today’s celebration is the baptism of the Lord—the revelation of Jesus to everyone. Suddenly, we’ve jumped from year one AD to year 30 to year 32 depending on the account you follow. What’s going on here? Why this broad jump over Jesus’ formative years? Perhaps it wasn’t eventful. Perhaps it simply wasn’t part of the revelation that we needed. St. John the Evangelist says at the end of his gospel that there aren’t enough books to capture everything Jesus told them. But let’s also understand that when we talk about scripture and revelation, what is revealed by the text is more than just the literal words on the page. Revelation contains a particular message for us. It’s not simply a historical account, although it may contain historical events. There is more to the text than the text itself.
We can see that the Old Testament and the New Testament affirm and support each other. St. Augustine said once that in the Old Testament, the new is latent—subsumed or hidden—and that in the New Testament, the Old is patent, which means that it is evident or clear. So the two testaments refer to each other, and this is fitting because the author is the Word Himself and all scripture ultimately points to Him.
Today’s reading from Isaiah foreshadows Christ’s arrival and what results from it:
Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased. Upon him I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations.
So first God claims this chosen one, and then He speaks directly to him:
I formed you, and set you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, To open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.
This last passage reminds me of a work that may have been commonly known among educated Hellenist Jews during Jesus’ time, a work that many of you in high school and beyond have studied: Plato’s parable of the Cave. In Plato’s work, people live in a cave and see only shadows of reality on the cave walls. They have to be dragged out of the cave to see the light, and then many of them simply can’t believe that what they’re seeing.
And that, also, is the challenge of the gospel. The good news is put in front of our noses and we have a hard time seeing it or accepting it. Isaiah is very explicit about what Christ’s coming will mean for all of humanity… that we’ll be led out of darkness and our blindness healed. But the people of the time had a hard time seeing it—particularly the Jews, who were waiting for a completely different kind of savior.
So in both Matthew’s and John’s gospel, we see Jesus being claimed by God as His Son. It’s as if God were stopping us midsentence and saying, “Wait, I just want you to get this one point”:
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
We modern people have to be hit over the head with evidence. The truth is right before our eyes, and God gave us hints throughout the Old Testament scripture to reaffirm the truth.
- In Genesis 1, the breath of God moves across the water to sanctify it, and God’s Word—His Son—brings about all creation from it. (The early Church Fathers taught that Christ’s also resulted in the sanctification of the earth’s water for our baptism.)
- Later in Genesis, Noah and his family pass through the deluge and into a world that is cleansed of evil.
- In Exodus, Moses is placed in the Nile in a miniature ark made of reeds, and he eventually leads the People of Israel out of slavery across the Red Sea*
- In Deuteronomy, Joshua leads the people across the Jordan to the promised land
In the first event, all creation begins with the sanctification of the water and separation from it. In each of the subsequent events, crossing the water signifies a rebirth, a new creation.
Those were our Old Testament reminders that God was on the job all along, and those baptismal events in the Old Testament point forward to Jesus, just as everything in scripture ultimately points to Jesus. His baptism is a sign to us: a sign of His obedience, but also a sign to signal the way—a sign that simply says, “Follow me.”
Baptism is one of the three sacraments of initiation. It begins our life in Christ and joins us to his body, the Church. It cleanses us of sin: both original and personal. And most of all, it makes us adopted sons and daughters of God. We do it because Christ did it before us. In baptism, we follow him so that we can fulfill all righteousness, through God’s grace.
It’s fitting for baptism to be God’s instrument for our sanctification. He has given us these signs in scripture, for certain, but He also planted a reminder of redemption in our very being. Our entrance into this world, through pregnancy and parturition is through a water barrier. Every image we have of rebirth is modeled after our first birth, and that is as we should expect. We as Catholics are people of the Incarnation—of the embodiment of God. Our experience of God is in the world around us, so baptism takes this form to remind us of our rebirth as God’s children. When we are baptized, God looks down on us and says, “This is my beloved son—my beloved daughter—with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus came down to share our lot, to pitch his tent among us, to live with us and experience life with us—and ultimately to give us an example. By following him in baptism, we share His divine life, and that was the reason for revelation and for His incarnation. God loves us and does not give up on us regardless of how far we stray. He came here to lead us back, and all we have to do is follow Him.
*I did not get into ark imagery that is also present and that each ark conveys a savior of one kind of another. Noah’s ark conveys Noah and his family, essentially saving mankind from extinct. The word used for the basket in the story of Moses’ childhood is literally “ark” in Hebrew. So the people of Israel are saved by one who was transported in an ark. When Joshua crosses the Jordan, his carrying with him the Ark of the Covenant, which carries the word of God (the 10 commandments). Finally Mary is the ark of the new covenant.