Baptism of the Lord (A):
Isa 42.1-4, 6-7; Acts 10.34-38; Matthew 3.13-17
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul Hospital
, Dallas, TX
In almost all of my high school literature classes we were taught that good literature is always about conflict and revelation. Man vs. Man. Man vs. Nature. Man vs. Machine. In these conflicts, the protagonist becomes the main character of a revelatory drama, something-up-until-now-hidden is finally unveiled in the conflict and the now public secret, though immediately applicable to our hero in the drama, is really a revelation for the reader. We as readers learn something about ourselves and thereby grow in our humanity—deepening our communal connections and preparing ourselves more fully for the next conflict. In this way, we are the beneficiaries of an epiphany; we are the smaller heroes of a drama that unveils the veiled, unlocks the locked, and in doing so, moves us into the way of a newer, more profound conflict that itself resolves eventually into another revelation and so on and so on. And the spiral spirals and we spiral with it to our end. That’s what we were taught about how to read literature in high school.
John the Baptist is busy at the Jordan River dunking prostitutes, tax-collectors, lepers, all the unwashed and unwanted of Galilee, baptizing them for repentance and preaching the coming of the Lord—the one who will baptize with fire and righteousness! In mid-dunk, John sees Jesus walk up, get in line, and when his turn comes, insists on being baptized like everyone else. John protests! And tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. An altogether sensible move given that Jesus is the Son of God and moves among his Father’s people without sin. Why baptize someone for repentance when they have no sin to repent of? John says in protest, “I need to be baptized by you, Lord, and yet you are coming to me?” This must be similar to your CPA coming to you for tax advice. Or, perhaps your doctor asking you for a second opinion about one of her cancer patients. Does the ignorant amateur safely advise the professional about his or her own profession? John stands conflicted and confused.
Jesus eases the conflict and clears the confusion when he says to John, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus, so as not to be in conflict with his Jewish tradition, presents himself to John for baptism because it is the right thing to do according to the law. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that his baptism is necessary or prudent or a good PR stunt. He says that his baptism is one part of a larger fulfillment of his Father’s expectations for human righteousness. Jesus has done all that is required of an observant Jew in his day: naming day, circumcision, Passover feasts, etc. His baptism is the last ritual obligation he has to complete before starting his public ministry as the Christ. John, either convinced by Jesus’ argument or simply cowed by his authority, “allows” Jesus to be baptized. And here we have the revelation!
But wait! The conflict between John and Jesus in the gospel is resolved in a revelation, but what about all the conflicts out here, outside the text, out here in the real world? Jesus is baptized. The Father reveals Jesus to be His beloved Son. God is pleased with His son. Great revelation, wonderful epiphany. But just today we hear from Peter in Acts that the Jesus went about “healing all those oppressed by the devil…” And this was after his baptism! The devil is still oppressing God’s children even after Jesus’ baptism. How did his baptism in the Jordan by John resolve conflicts with the devil, with ourselves, and with one another? We still have problems.
First, pay attention to the epiphany itself. The Spirit of God came upon him. The voice proclaimed Jesus to be the “beloved Son.” Second, look again at the text from Acts. Peter says in Acts, “You know the word…how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.” And third, look again at the text from Isaiah, the Lord says, “Here is my servant…my chosen one with whom I am well pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit…” The Lord tells Isaiah that His anointed will not cry out or shout in the streets, not a single blade of grass will he bruise “until he establishes justice on the earth…” We know that the Spirit of the Lord is upon His anointed. We know that His anointed will establish justice—the Lord’s rule on earth. What else do we know about this Christ? We know that he must suffer and die. We know that he must come again.
In the meantime—all the time and times in between then and now, there and here—we, you and I, have promised to follow him. We have promised to make it our lives to follow, our livelihoods to follow, all of our conflicts and all of our revelations are about following him. Jesus was baptized in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” We were baptized to join his righteousness, to cling onto his ministry, his miracles, his teaching and preaching, his betrayals, his sufferings, and his death. We were baptized to graft ourselves onto the branch of David and Jesse, to share in the promised kingdom, the sacrificial priesthood, and the revealing mission of the prophet. We were baptized to transplant ourselves into the Body of Christ and work with him to bring justice to the nations. We were baptized so that we are able to shout with Mary, she who gave birth to the Word, “Let it be done to me according to your Word!”
Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John because, if we will become the beloved children of a loving Father, we too must be baptized and the Spirit of God must come upon us and the voice from heaven will say of you and me and our promise to be Christ for others, “I am well pleased.” What happens then? Wars end. Hunger is eliminated. Disease cured. No. Our conflicts with God do not magically cease. My conflicts with myself do not disappear like soap bubbles. Your conflicts with yourself and your neighbors do not vanish into the cold air. What is revealed to us in every conflict, each sign of trouble is power of the Spirit to bring us a patient peace, a constant hope, the love we need to throw off the oppression of hatred and inordinate desire; to unbuckle the leash of sin and to throw ourselves out there as living sacrifices to the justice that we know is coming. We are baptized to follow Christ not to wallow in self-pity; to cry out in the streets and shout the Word in the markets. In short, what is hidden is revealed, what is locked is unlocked b/c we ourselves are revelations of the Spirit!
Will the tax-collectors and prostitutes and Pharisees watch us and say, “Ahhhhh…so that’s who Christ is…that’s exactly, he is exactly who I want to be”?