BAPTISM: OUR COMMON BOND
“This is My Son, my favour rests upon Him”
The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ marks the end of Christmas celebrations and the beginning of the Ordinary Season of the Church. How wonderful and perhaps intriguing this feast that God comes down to man to be baptised; the divine seeks cleansing from the human; that the Sinless One is washed by a sinner; that the Saviour is baptised by the one He came to save! St. Peter Chrysologus captures this beautifully thus: “Today the servant holds the Lord, man holds God, John holds Christ: hold Him, as about to receive, not to grant forgiveness.” John the Baptist himself was equally perplexed by this fact and so he asked in Matthew 3: 14: “I need to be baptised by You, and do You come to me?”
So why then did Jesus go to be baptised by John? As Jesus Himself responded in Matthew 3: 15, it was “to fulfil all righteousness.” For Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfil the laws and the prophets (Matthew 5: 17). By submitting to this rite, Jesus identified with sinners and aligned Himself to the Will of the Father. We can find deeper answers to this question in John 1: 29-34 namely that it was so that John would make Jesus known to Israel and to the entire world as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Also that John could identify and testify that Jesus is the “Chosen One of God” – the Messiah, the Anointed One.
The Gospel today (Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22) begins with the growing popularity of John the Baptist: “A feeling of expectancy had grown among the people, who were beginning to think that John might be the Christ …” (Luke 3: 15). But in his typical humble nature, John responded with a riddle and the prophecy “The One who was to come.” He made a distinction between his baptism, with water, and that of Jesus the One who is coming, Who will baptise with Holy Spirit and with fire. These images of “Holy Spirit and fire” recalls immediately the event of the Pentecost (Acts 2: 3-4). For just as the baptism of Jesus marked the inauguration His public ministry so the Pentecost marked the inauguration of the public ministry of the apostles to the “ends of the earth.” John makes a further distinction that the One Who is coming is “mightier than I” and he is “not fit to undo the strap of His sandals.” John here exalts the position and the glory of the One to come so high that he is not fit to be His slave – for it was the duty of a slave to unstrap the master’s sandal when he returns from a journey and to wash his feet. The humility of John cannot be over-emphasised for it speaks so eloquently to us that we cannot but reflect on the influence of our ego on our relationships with others. There are some people who would have expropriated the misplaced accolades from the people to make false claims. But John did not. His response was the simple truth: “I am not the Christ.”
The unique account by Luke that it was while Jesus was at prayer after He had been baptised that the heaven opened confirms Luke’s emphasis on the centrality of prayer in the life of Jesus throughout the Gospel. And so the heaven opened and “the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily shape, like a dove.” The descent of the Holy Spirit invokes the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah (11: 2) “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him” and in the First Reading (Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7) that He is the Servant of God endowed with God’s Spirit. The appearance of the Holy Spirit in “bodily form” was a manifestation of the visible reality of the presence of the Third Person of the Trinity. St. Thomas Aquinas explains this incident thus: “And therefore the Holy Ghost descended visibly, under a bodily shape, on Christ at His baptism, in order that we may believe Him to descend invisibly on all those who are baptised” (Summa Theologica, III, Q. 39, Art. 6). The appearance of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove can be related to the Spirit that hovered over the waters at creation in Genesis to indicate that in Jesus is a new creation, and a new beginning (2 Corinthians 5: 17). For we who have been baptised into Christ and who share in this gift of the Spirit have the privilege of beginning a new life and are therefore called to become new creatures.
The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord could easily be called the Feast of the Manifestation of the Trinity: for here we see God the Son baptised; God the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove and now God the Father speaks: “You are My Son, the Beloved; My favour rests upon You” (Luke 3: 22). This is very significant because at each of our baptism, we were baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28: 19). Thus we were grafted into the Person of the Blessed Trinity. Baptism thus opens us into this new life of union and oneness with the Triune God. By this very fact we, the baptised, do not pray outside of God, we pray within God because we are one with Him.
At baptism, we are incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. We become parts of that Body, which Jesus is the Head (Romans 12: 5; 1 Corinthians12: 12-27; Ephesians 3: 6; 5: 23; Colossians 1: 18, 24). Jesus clearly confirms this when, on the way to Damascus, He confronted Saul saying: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9: 3). Christ identified the Church with Himself as one and the same Person. By being baptised into Christ and made members of His Body, we ourselves who have been baptised become bonded into this One Body. There are no longer Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-born, for we were all baptised in the same Name of the Blessed Trinity (1 Corinthians 12: 13). Baptism therefore presents a great demand on us all to be united in the love of one another so much so “If one member suffers, all suffer together; and if one member is honoured, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12: 26). St Paul uses the analogy of the organs of the body to depict the intrinsic inter-connectedness among all the baptised (1 Corinthians 12: 15-25).
Let the celebration of this feast of the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ be an opportunity for us to recall the day we were baptised; let it rekindle that light that was entrusted to us; let it awaken the zeal of the Spirit that we received; let it bring back the joy we shared on that day; and let it revitalise those gifts we were given so that we can be true witnesses of The One Who was baptised so that we could share in His life.