Scripture and the Liturgy

Feast of the Baptism

This Sunday is like the image of the ancient Roman divinity Janus, God of beginnings and endings, which consisted of a man’s head with two faces, one looking backward and one looking forward.  On the one hand, this Sunday concludes the joyful Christmas season: the Baptism marks the end of Jesus’ childhood and education, and the beginning of his public ministry.  On this Sunday the crèche scenes should be packed up and carefully stored for next year, if they have not already been.  On the other hand, this Sunday marks the beginning of (extra-)Ordinary Time, the march of thirty-four Sundays beginning in January and ending in November, during which we travel the road of discipleship with Jesus as presented in one of the first three Gospels—in this year, Mark.

The preacher has a choice for the non-Gospel Readings this Sunday: he can proclaim the standard (ABC) Readings for the Feast, which are those listed for Year A (Isa 42:1-4, 6-7; Ps 29:1-2, 3-4, 9-10; Acts 10:34-38), or adopt the optional readings for Year B introduced in by the 1998 Lectionary.  For the sake of including more Scripture in the “diet” of the congregation, I would recommend using the optional Year B readings, which are given below. 

Our First Reading is Isaiah 55:1-11.  It is a long and complex Reading, so I am going to comment on it in smaller sections:

Thus says the LORD:

All you who are thirsty,

come to the water!

You who have no money,

come, receive grain and eat;

come, without paying and without cost,

drink wine and milk!

Why spend your money for what is not bread,

your wages for what fails to satisfy?

Heed me, and you shall eat well,

you shall delight in rich fare.

Come to me heedfully,

listen, that you may have life.

I will renew with you the everlasting covenant,

the benefits assured to David.

This is an extremely important oracle of Isaiah, one of a handful in which he prophesies the coming of the New Covenant.  However, Isaiah does not use the term “New”—only Jeremiah does (Jer 31:31).  Rather, Isaiah’s preferred term for what we know as the new covenant is everlasting covenant (Heb. berît ‘ôlam).  Isaiah employs this phrase to emphasize the permanent character of the coming covenant, which will be unlike the Mosaic covenant at Sinai, which was broken immediately and one day will be set aside. 

It is important to grasp the flow and context of this oracle.  It begins with the voice of God inviting the poor of the earth (i.e. those who are “thirsty” and “have no money”—who are these but the poor?) to a free meal (“without paying and without cost”).  Those who come to this meal will be granted entrance to an “everlasting covenant,” the same one that David once enjoyed.

Verse 3 is not well-rendered in our Mass translation.  A more literal version would be:

Stretch out your ears and come to me;

Listen, that your souls may live:

I will cut (Heb. karath) for you an eternal covenant,

The “mercies” (Heb. hasdê) confirmed to David.

The usual term for making or initiating a covenant with a person in Hebrew is “to cut a covenant.”  This expression derives from the practice of cutting animals as part of the covenant-making ritual (see Gen 15:7-17).  The translation “renew” is unwarranted, as covenant renewal typically was expressed by a different verb, hêqîm.[1]  Isaiah is speaking of covenant initiation here—a new covenantal act will be made (compare Jeremiah’s “new covenant,” Jer 31:31).  Nonetheless, this new and eternal covenant into which the poor dinners will be initiated, is in essence the “mercies” once confirmed to David.  The word for “mercies” here is the Hebrew hesed in the plural (hasdê),[2] one of the most theologically significant terms in the Old Testament. The plural here does not indicate more than one mercy; rather it is an example of the Hebrew “plural of majesty,” which can be translated “great mercy.” THE Traditionally translation “mercy” for hesed goes back to the ancient Septuaging (Gr. eleos), but the term really means “covenantal-love-and-loyalty”—the faithful kind of love that spouses and other covenant partners ought to show one another.  Thus, hesed is a covenantal term.  The covenant provides the legal form for the relationship, but hesed describes the relationship as lived.  Therefore, the end of Isaiah 55:3 really means that the poor who heed God’s voice and come to the free meal will be initiated into a covenant that is, in essence, the same covenantal relationship that David once enjoyed, often called by scholars the “Davidic covenant.”  Needless to say, this oracle is strongly Eucharistic—one of the most important Eucharistic prophecies in all of the Old Testament.   

But that is not all.  Our First Reading continues:

As I made him a witness to the peoples,

a leader and commander of nations,

so shall you summon a nation you knew not,

and nations that knew you not shall run to you,

because of the LORD, your God,

the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you.

We forget that David was not only king over Israel, but over the surrounding nations as well (2 Sam 8:11), and he was promised the whole earth (Ps 2:1-9).  So Isaiah is making a point: Just as David was once king over many nations, so also you poor who come to the free meal I offer will find yourself being sought out by foreign nations who will come to you for salvation.  This is a mystical prophecy of the evangelizing mission of the Church.  The Church will be the restoration of David’s kingdom and covenant.

Seek the LORD while he may be found,

call him while he is near.

Let the scoundrel forsake his way,

and the wicked man his thoughts;

let him turn to the LORD for mercy;

to our God, who is generous in forgiving.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

As high as the heavens are above the earth

so high are my ways above your ways

and my thoughts above your thoughts.

Now the prophet calls for the wicked to repent so they can be forgiven.  Unlike human beings, who prefer to think in quid-pro-quo, tit-for-tat, lex talionis, retributive justice, God actually thinks in terms of mercy and forgiveness. God’s generosity in forgiving is tied to the transcendence of his thoughts—“my thoughts are not your thoughts … my thoughts [are] above your thoughts.”  In other words, you can only think in terms of justice and punishment, but I think in terms of mercy and forgiveness.

For just as from the heavens

the rain and snow come down

and do not return there

till they have watered the earth,

making it fertile and fruitful,

giving seed to the one who sows

and bread to the one who eats,

so shall my word be

that goes forth from my mouth;

my word shall not return to me void,

but shall do my will,

achieving the end for which I sent it.

This is a general, true statement about the effectiveness of God’s Word, but in the context of today’s Mass, it can be understood with a particular Christological significance: Jesus is the “Word” that goes forth from the Father’s mouth: he will do God’s will and achieve the end for which he was sent.  That is a particularly apt sentiment on this day which marks the beginning of Jesus’ mission, the start of his effort to “achieve the end” for which he was sent.  Also, we may give a pneumatological sense to this passage as well: the “rain and snow” that come down from the heavens to water the earth and make it fruitful may be taken as a sign of the Holy Spirit, who in our Gospel reading will descend from the heavens to give new life to the earth, starting from Jesus, who is the “first fruits” of the new creation (1 Cor 15:20,23).

So all in all, the features we observe in this passage—the call to repentance, the summons to the Eucharistic banquet, the promise of God’s Word accomplishing God’s purpose—all function appropriately on this Feast as we begin the liturgical “journey of discipleship” with Jesus that Ordinary Time represents. 

Our Psalm is Isaiah 12:2-3, 4bcd, 5-6:

R. (3) You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.
God indeed is my savior;
I am confident and unafraid.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.
With joy you will draw water
at the fountain of salvation.
R. You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.
Give thanks to the LORD, acclaim his name;
among the nations make known his deeds,
proclaim how exalted is his name.

R. You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.
Sing praise to the LORD for his glorious achievement;
let this be known throughout all the earth.
Shout with exultation, O city of Zion,
for great in your midst
is the Holy One of Israel!
R. You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.

This is one of only a handful of occasions in which the “Psalm” is not really a psalm, but a canticle from another part of Scripture, an “embedded” psalm, if you will.  Isaiah 12 is a particularly famous Canticle, used heavily during the Easter Season.  Within the structure of Isaiah, the twelfth chapter forms an ecstatic doxology that concludes the first section of the book (Isaiah 1-12), which could function as a précis or synopsis of virtually all the main themes of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry.  This section of Isaiah includes some of the strongest and clearest messianic prophecies: Isaiah 7:14; 9:1-9; 11:1-15.  Isaiah calls his readers to praise God after hearing the wonderful prophecies that await them in the future.  In particular, we note the theme of “water of salvation” and the proclamation of good news to the “nations” and “all the earth.”  These themes are actually characteristic of the entire Book of Isaiah.  This prophet was considered the greatest of the writing (literary) prophets in ancient Judaism, and Isaiah is the most-quoted prophet in both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament.  The Essenes who left us the famous Scrolls from their monastery on the shores of the Dead Sea were particularly fond of Isaiah, and they probably understood this passage about “drawing water from the springs of salvation” as a reference to their own ritual washings in the many sacred bathing pools they maintained at Qumran, the site of their monastery.  Even a hundred years before the birth of Christ, they were already claiming that the waters of their community could impart the Holy Spirit and cleanse from sin.  John the Baptist was probably sent there to be raised (cf. Luke 1:80), but John was not content with the “waters of salvation” being confined to the closed circle of these hyper-devout monks.  He wished to bring the message of repentance and salvation to a larger audience—even the “nations” or “Gentiles” (these words are the same in all ancient languages).  That probably led to a parting of ways with the monastic community at Qumran, and John moved a few miles up the Jordan to the fords of Jericho, a heavily-traveled trade route where merchants and travelers from all over the Roman Empire (and beyond) crossed paths—comparable to a major airport hub (Atlanta Hartfield or Chicago O’Hare) today.  There, John preached baptism as a sign of repentance and anticipation of the soon-coming Messiah who would give the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This sets the stage for our Gospel Reading.

Our Second Reading is 1 John 5:1-9.  This Reading is particularly appropriate on this Sunday, because this Sunday marks the end of the semi-continuous reading of 1 John that marks the Christmas Season.  Indeed, 1 John is a letter of great sweetness and purity, a perfectly clear distillation of the Gospel, the message of salvation.  The Church drinks the milk of First John every year when she spiritually becomes a new-born babe with the Christ Child at Christmas.  But now we come to the end of this spiritual childhood, and the Apostle sums up the major themes of his letter.  I will comment section by section:

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ

is begotten by God,
and everyone who loves the Father
loves also the one begotten by him.

Here we see how closely related John’s Gospel and his First Epistle are.  Jesus being the only-begotten son of God is, of course, a major theme of the Gospel (John 3:16), but his status as son or daughter of God is not reserved to Jesus alone, but he shares it with everyone that “believes Jesus is the Christ.”  We can all become “begotten” like the “only-begotten.” That “begetting” takes place in Baptism, which is our spiritual birth as children of God.  Before baptism, we are only children of God potentially (Latin in spe), but in baptism we become God’s children actually (Latin in re).  This teaching of divine filiation or childhood is unique to the Christian faith—other religions reject this teaching, understand it much differently, or regard it as irrelevant.

In this way we know that we love the children of God
when we love God and obey his commandments.
For the love of God is this,
that we keep his commandments.

The First Epistle of John is very concerned with “knowing” that one is saved and in a right relationship to God, since heresies were already rising in the lifetime of John the Apostle, who died around AD 96.  How can we “know” we are saved when there are many false teachers going around preaching was of salvation that sound attractive?  John gives various touchstones of the true faith throughout the Epistle.  Here is one: we know we are on the right path when we “love God and obey his commandments.”  Obedience to the commandments of God is a mark of love.  There is neither obedience without love, nor love without obedience.  Many heresies have risen throughout Church history that separate love from obedience.  The Reformation cry of “salvation by faith alone” was, in some versions of it, an attempt to separate love from obedience by asserting it was possible to love God but not follow his commandments. There are always both “progressive” heresies and “conservative” heresies.  Conservative heresies latch on inappropriately to something from the past, whereas progressive heresies purport to “move beyond” what has been believed and practiced.  The perpetual temptation of “progressive” heresies is to ditch the moral commands of God while claiming to be in some kind of “new” or “liberated” relationship with him.  These heresies fail to understand the nature of love and law—namely that moral law always follows the principle of love, that it is not possible for something to be morally wrong yet loving, nor morally correct and unloving.  But we will have to leave the complete discussion of this for a later time.

And his commandments are not burdensome,
for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
Who indeed is the victor over the world
but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

These are some of the most rousing words from John’s epistle.  What is more epic than the statement: “This is the victory that overcomes the world: even our faith!” or “Who is the victor over the world but the one who believes Jesus is the Son of God!”  These are statements that one wants to put on a flag or a T-shirt as bold challenges and reminders to the whole world.  What John is saying is that faith leads us to divine rebirth—which we know takes place in Baptism—as the gift of the Holy Spirit enables us to overcome sin, death, and the Devil—the three main aspects of the “world” understood as the whole world system opposed to God.  The goal of the “world” apart from God is our eternal destruction—therefore, everyone who refuses to succumb and maintains his faith in Christ overcomes everything the world wants to achieve and defies and conquers the world.  Faith is already a victory and a participation in heaven.

This is the one who came

through water and blood, Jesus Christ,
not by water alone, but by water and blood.
The Spirit is the one who testifies,
and the Spirit is truth.
So there are three that testify,
the Spirit, the water, and the blood,
and the three are of one accord.
If we accept human testimony,
the testimony of God is surely greater.
Now the testimony of God is this,
that he has testified on behalf of his Son.

Water and blood are important signs in the Gospel of John.  Water is always associated with Baptism, and blood with Eucharist.  Further, Water is associated with Christ’s natural birth, and Blood with his re-birth through crucifixion and resurrection.  The Incarnation (John 1:14) and the Resurrection (John 11:25) are like two poles around which the Gospel of John rotates.  So the blood and water flow from his side (John 19:34), his incarnation and resurrection, Christmas and Easter, Baptism and Eucharist, both of which convey the Holy Spirit.  The “three that testify” can be understood as the two primary Sacraments: Baptism and Eucharist, and the Spirit who is communicated through both. The theme of “testimony” is also strong in the Gospel of John, as John portrays Jesus as a kind of heavenly prosecutor come down to convict the world of sin and give testimony to the truth of God.  When John says, “God has testified on behalf of his Son,” it refers generally to all the signs that God provided to verify and vindicate the person and message of Jesus, which would include most dramatically the resurrection itself.  And yet, the voice of God at the Baptism is also a dramatic instance of “God testifying on behalf of his Son.”

Our Gospel is Mark 1:7-11:

This is what John the Baptist proclaimed:
“One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop

and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

It happened in those days

that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee
and was baptized in the Jordan by John.
On coming up out of the water

he saw the heavens being torn open
and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens,
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

In my book Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, I argued that it is likely that John the Baptist was raised by the Essene monks on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, but left them in order to fulfill the Isaianic mission of preaching the good news of God’s salvation to all the nations.  As Mark opens, John is doing just that, preaching at the fords of the Jordan.  Unlike the Essenes, John did not claim the power to confer the Holy Spirit.  He was very cognizant of the limitations of his ministry—his baptism was “with water”—a material and external sign.  But One was coming who would be able to dispense the Holy Spirit.  That John was “not worth to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals” is quite dramatic language.  This was the duty of a slave—and a low-ranking one at that—toward his master.  The master would enter his house and a slave would come, remove his sandals, and wash his feet.  John is saying: I’m not worthy to be the slave of the one who is coming.  This, coupled with the fact that the one who comes has power over the giving of the Holy Spirit, really entails that the coming One is divine.

“It happened,” Marks says, that “Jesus came …”  This ties with John’s prophecy that after him someone would come.

Jesus’ baptism by John is like a New Creation, where we see images of the initial creation from Genesis 1: there are the heavens and the earth and the waters, and the Spirit descending over the waters.  Jesus’ Baptism, like each of our Baptisms, is the experience of a New Creation (cf. 2 Cor 5:17).

The Spirit in the image of a bird or dove goes all the way back to Genesis 1:3, which describes the Spirit “hovering” (Heb. hithhalêk) over the surface of the waters. Mark also describes the heavens being “split” (Gr. schizô), the same word employed for Moses “splitting” the Red Sea (Ex 14:21).

As an aside, we should also note that Mark uses this term “torn” or “split,” schizô, in only one other place in his Gospel, at the scene of the crucifixion, when—after Our Lord expires on the cross—the veil of the Temple is “torn” in half from top to bottom (symbolizing either the presence of God leaving the Temple and tearing the curtain as it departs, or else the way to God being torn open and made available to all—both senses fit) and the centurion in charge of Jesus’ execution proclaims, “surely this was the Son of God!”  We can note the similarities between these two events: the veil of the Temple was blue and decorated with images of the heavenly bodies to resemble the sky itself, so at both the beginning and the end of this Gospel we have the “tearing of the heavens” and the proclamation of Jesus as the Son of God.  Then, too, we have death in both places—Baptism is a ritual of death in which the baptizand “dies” in the waters and is raised to new life, and obviously the cross was the Lord’s “baptism” in death presaging his resurrection.  So at the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel we are already foreshadowing its conclusion, just as the beginning of our Christian life—our baptism—is a foreshadowing of our eventual death and resurrection to eternal life.

The divine voice at the end of our Reading pronounces a variation of Psalm 2:7-8:

         I will tell of the decree:

         The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;

         today I have begotten you.

Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,

         and the ends of the earth your possession.

Many scholars think that Psalm 2 was the royal coronation hymn, an ancient song sung when each new son of David ascended the throne for the first time.  It proclaims the divine sonship of the Davidic dynasty and the international suzerainty that God promised to it.  For God the Father to echo this Psalm at this point in Jesus’ ministry is very significant.  The Baptism is the beginning of Jesus’ reign over the kingdom.  When he returns from the desert temptation interlude, his preaching will be “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come!” (cf. Mk 1:15 in Greek).  If we look into the Old Testament, we see that it was the custom to bring the new king to the Gihon spring—where presumably he washed—and then anoint him there under the guidance of the reigning priest (Zadok) and the reigning prophet (Nathan) (see 1 Kings 1:32-40). Jesus experiences his royal washing and anointing (by the Spirit) right here in the Jordan under John, who was both priest through his father Zechariah (cf. Luke 1:5) and the reigning prophet of the day. 

John went to the fords of the Jordan to bring salvation to all the nations, and ends up baptizing the man named “salvation” (cf. Matt 1:21) who is destined to rule all the nations. 

In Psalm 2:7, God says, “You are my son,” but in Mark God says, “You are my beloved son.” This term beloved (Gr. agapetos) calls to mind two characters from the Old Testament: Isaac, who three times in the Septuagint of Genesis 22 is called the agapetos or “beloved” son of Abraham (see Gen 22 LXX).  Also David, whose own name dawid in Hebrew means “beloved one.” Therefore, the language “beloved son” applied to Jesus connects Our Lord with those two pivotal covenant mediators of the Old Testament, Isaac and David.  It is similar to Matthew introducing Jesus in Matt 1:1 as “son of David, son of Abraham.” Royalty was promised to both the lines of Abraham (Gen 17:6) and David (2 Sam 7:12), so this reinforces the royal background of the Baptism.  The connection with Isaac also foreshadows the sacrifice of Christ, because Isaac is most remembered for offering himself on the wood of the altar as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah at the behest of his father Abraham (Gen 22).

The continued statement, “with you I am well pleased,” probably picks up on the characteristics of Isaiah’s mysterious “servant of the LORD,” as in Isaiah 42:1:

Is. 42:1     Behold my servant, whom I uphold,

                  my chosen, in whom my souldelights;

          I have put my Spirit upon him;

                  he will bring forth justice to the nations.

The phrase “I am well-pleased” probably renders the Hebrew “my soul delights in him.”  We can see how appropriate the context of Isaiah 42:1 is for the Baptism, as we have mention of the “Spirit upon him,” and then the royal duty of bringing “forth justice to the nations.” 

So as Mark recounts it, Our Lord’s Baptism is really his royal coronation and the beginning of his reign over the Kingdom of God.  Pastorally, there are several ways we can embrace the meaning of this Feast.  One would be to accept more fully the kingship of Christ in our own lives.  Jesus is not content to be Lord of part of our lives and not others: are there any nooks or crannies of our lives which we withhold from Jesus’ kingship and refuse to allow him to rule?

On the other hand, we should also remember that our own baptisms conform us to Christ’s kingship.  This means ruling over all our possessions and spheres of influence as Jesus’ viceroy.  How are we doing in that mission?  Do I rule over my circumstances, bringing order, justice, and charity to them?  Or am I overwhelmed by my circumstances, or worse, addicted to the things I own or manage, such that they rule over me?  The duty of the laity is to sanctify the temporal order.  We should be bringing Christ’s rule to the office, the bank, the school, the hospital, the worksite, the home.  Are we doing it, or do we think the work of transforming society starts somewhere else or is another person’s responsibility?

At this Mass, let’s pray that we may submit more fully to Christ’s kingship, and better represent his kingship in our own lives.

[1] That is, the verb qûm “stand, arise,” in the Hiphil (causative) stem, giving the senses, “cause to stand, establish, re-establish.”

[2] Regularly the plural would be hasdîm, but here the word is in the construct form hasdê, an unusual grammatical state (for English speakers, at least) in which the following word functions as a genitive.  The construct can be translated “[word] + of”, so in this case, “mercies of.”

1 comment

Leave a Reply