Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Why Was Jesus Baptized? The Feast of the Baptism


This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which will close the liturgical season of Christmas.

But why do we celebrate this event at all?  The primary meaning of baptism appears to be the washing away of sin.  Since Jesus had no sin, why be baptized?  That’s one of the more obvious questions raised by the theme of this feast and by the readings.  At the same time, the readings for this Sunday point us in the direction of an answer. 

1.  The First Reading is Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7:


Thus says the LORD:
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.

I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of 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 reading from Isaiah is a portion of one of Isaiah’s famous “Servant Songs,” these long poems Isaiah loved to compose which describe the mysterious “servant of the LORD” who is to come and save Israel.

This particular Servant Song is very rich in imagery and theological content.  I can’t deal with every motif and image employed here, so I will focus on one: the royal motif.

It is clear from the language of Isaiah 42 that the “servant of the LORD” is a royal figure.  Look at how he is described in the first several verses: he is (1) the “servant” of God, (2) the “chosen one,” and (3) the one anointed with the Spirit (“upon whom I have put my Spirit,” cf. Isa 61:1-2).

Now look at how David is described in Psalm 89, perhaps the most important psalm about the Davidic covenant in the entire Psalter:

19 Of old thou didst speak in a vision to thy faithful one, and say: “I have set the crown upon one who is mighty, I have exalted one chosen from the people.  20 I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him (Ps 89:19-20)

The point is, the figure described in Isaiah 42:1-7 is a kingly figure, a royal person in the image and likeness of David; in fact, the Son of David.

This theme continues in the remainder of the reading.  It is said that the “servant” will bring forth justice to the nations, the earth, and the coastlands.  This is an allusion to the ideal image of Solomon, the Son of David, who ruled an international empire, was renown for his brilliant application of justice in the court of law, and taught justice to the nations through the wisdom literature (cf. 1 Kings 3-4, 10).  The “bruised reed” and “smoldering wick” are images of the oppressed, of people so poor and disadvantaged that they are barely alive.  In his application of justice, this royal servant will not run roughshod over such people, but will coax them back to life through his righteous administration. 

Later, the reading speaks of the “servant” releasing the “blind,” the “imprisoned,” those in “dungeons” and in “darkness.”  These are all probably references to the same group of people: those wrongly incarcerated by unjust rulers who preceded the “servant” in royal office.

So we note that there is a heavy emphasis on the implementation of true justice as a role of the coming servant.  Moreover, the implementation of justice was not primarily the role of the prophet or the priest, but of the king.  Thus, while it is not a matter of “either/or,” we do observe that this reading focuses most on the royal dimension of the coming Servant.

Finally, we note one of the most puzzling statements in this whole oracle, which comes near the end of our selection:

I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations …

I slightly prefer the rendering of the RSV, which says, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, etc..”  What is what puzzles: How can a person “be” a covenant?  It makes no sense.  You can “make” a covenant between persons, you can “mediate” a covenant, you can “write” down the stipulations of a covenant, you can “renew” a covenant, but you can’t “become” a covenant.  What does Isaiah mean?  How can the servant “become” a covenant for the people, rather than “make” a covenant with them?  It is difficult to make sense of this concept if one is limited to the historical context of Isaiah’s own day.  The meaning of this cryptic promise will only become apparent in light of events much later in salvation history.

We should also note that the lines “a covenant of the people” and “a light for the nations” are in poetic parallelism in Hebrew, and should be understood as mutually illuminating in terms of meaning.  So it is not that “he will be a light to then nations, but not a light to the people, and he will be a covenant to the people but not to the nations,” but rather “he will be light and covenant to both the people (Israel) and the nations (Gentiles).”  Therefore we have here an oracle of the opening up of the covenant relationship with God to people of all nationalities.

2.  The Responsorial is Psalm 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10:

R(11b) The Lord will bless his people with peace.
Give to the LORD, you sons of God,
give to the LORD glory and praise,
Give to the LORD the glory due his name;
adore the LORD in holy attire.
R. The Lord will bless his people with peace.
The voice of the LORD is over the waters,
the LORD, over vast waters.
The voice of the LORD is mighty;
the voice of the LORD is majestic.
R. The Lord will bless his people with peace.
The God of glory thunders,
and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
The LORD is enthroned above the flood;
the LORD is enthroned as king forever.
R. The Lord will bless his people with peace.

This Psalm is a doxology praising the greatness of the LORD as “king forever” over the whole universe (“enthroned above the flood”).  In the context of this Mass, this psalm is a praise of Christ the King who is revealed in his Kingship at the Baptism, and rises from the waters of the Jordan to be “enthroned above the flood.”  We will expand on this idea below.

3.  The Second Reading is Acts 10:34-38:

Peter proceeded to speak to those gathered
in the house of Cornelius, saying:
“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him.
You know the word that he sent to the Israelites
as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all,
what has happened all over Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the baptism
that John preached,
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power.
He went about doing good
and healing all those oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him.”

This Reading from Acts records a pivotal moment in the history of the world and human civilization!  In the context of Acts 10, St. Peter is presiding over the first baptism of uncircumcised Gentile converts to Christianity (Acts 10:47-48).  This was highly controversial in the early Church, because there was initial disagreement among the apostles and elders of themselves over whether it was appropriate to baptize Gentiles without first requiring them to be Jews (that is, requiring circumcision: see Acts 15:1-35).  But here in Acts 10, Peter presides over the first such baptism of the uncircumcised.  Note how St. Luke, the author of Acts, emphasizes Peter’s authority in the narratives that lead up to Acts 10.  We see Peter healing a paralytic as Jesus did (Acts 9:32-35), and raising a woman from the dead as Jesus did (Acts 9:36-43).  This confirms his authority to permit the baptism of the Gentiles and their entrance into the Church, which was a fulfillment of our First Reading (“a covenant … and light to the nations [or ‘Gentiles’]”), and a huge watershed in human history, opening up the spread of the Gospel and the Church to ethnic groups in Europe, Africa, and Asia, forever changing the history of cultures and nations, leading to a day when (despite all difficulties) the whole world counts time by the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church (i.e. the Gregorian) and the birth of Christ is one of the most universal and widely-celebrated international holidays .

Our Second Reading records the substance of Peter’s preaching on this occasion, which was a proclamation of the ministry of Jesus Christ.  St. Luke sums up Peter’s account of Jesus’ earthly ministry like this:

beginning in Galilee after the baptism
that John preached,
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power.
He went about doing good
and healing all those oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him.”

The Baptism of Jesus, which began his earthly ministry, is identified her as “God anoint(ing) Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.”  This is a clue to us as to why Jesus was baptized.  For Jesus, the baptism was not a washing with sin, but an anointing with the Holy Spirit.  Didn’t Jesus have the Spirit before?  Of course, but it was an anointing “with the Holy Spirit and power,” which should be taken as a hendiadys indicating “a powerful anointing of the Holy Spirit” or “an anointing with the Holy Spirit such as to release power.”  So the Baptism was an event in which God unleashed the power of the Holy Spirit working through Jesus.  The Spirit and the Son join in mission to “do good and heal all those oppressed by the devil.”  Those oppressed by the devil, whether caught in the chains of sinful habits or even outright possession, are the ones to whom Isaiah referred when he said the Servant would “bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”  The spiritual imprisonment of a life of sin is far greater than the physical confinement of incarceration.  In fact, there are some who essentially imprison their bodies in order to gain spiritual freedom: cloistered monks and nuns.  Physically, their lives resemble those of prisoners!  Yet in spiritual freedom they surpass many in joy.

4.  The Gospel is Matt 3:13-17:

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan
to be baptized by him.
John tried to prevent him, saying,
“I need to be baptized by you,
and yet you are coming to me?”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us
to fulfill all righteousness.”
Then he allowed him.
After Jesus was baptized,
he came up from the water and behold,
the heavens were opened for him,
and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove
and coming upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens, saying,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Knowing that one of the primary reasons for baptism was to publicly signify one’s repentance from sin, and that Jesus had no sin from which to repent, John objects to Jesus’ baptism: “I need to be baptized by you, yet you are coming to me?”

But repentance from sin is only one significance of baptism.  There are others equally or more important.

In the Old Testament, we see that when the Son of David replaced his father as king over Israel, we was taken to sacred water, anointed, and then began his reign.  First Kings 1:32-40 records this ritual for us.  When he became king, Solomon was taken to the Gihon, the spring that served as the only fresh water source for all Jerusalem.  The Gihon (Heb. “gusher”) was named after one of the rivers of Eden, because it Jerusalem was regarded as a mystical New Eden where one could “walk with God” in the Temple.  So the Gihon spring was rich in symbolism: a source of sacred water, it recalled the life-giving waters of God’s good creation, before the Fall, in the Garden.  Now, 1 Kings 1 does not specifically say what they did to Solomon at the Gihon, but there was no point in taking him there unless they were going to wash him and/or have him drink, and based on ancient Near Eastern parallels as well as other biblical texts, we may be confident that Solomon both washed and drank from the Gihon, and then received the anointing from Zadok, the acting High Priest, and Nathan, the ranking prophet (1 Kings 1:45).

So we observe this parallel between Jesus and Solomon: like Solomon, Jesus is taken to a source of sacred water (in this case, the Jordan, rich in salvation-historical symbolism) and there washed and anointed by the ranking priest and prophet.  John the Baptist stands in for both roles, since he was clearly the ranking prophet of his day, and moreover was of priestly blood through his father Zechariah (Luke 1:5).

This leads us to an answer to our initial question: Why was Jesus baptized?  Not as a washing away of his sin, but “in order to fulfill all righteousness,” which means, among other things, to fulfill the Scriptures.  And the prophetic meaning of Solomon’s washing and anointing to begin his reign (1 Kings 1:32-40) had to be fulfilled in the One who was greater than Solomon (Matt 12:42).

For Jesus, baptism means something different than it does for us.  For Jesus, his baptism represents his ritual anointing in order to begin his kingly reign.  This is why the voice of God the Father booms from heaven, saying “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  The Father’s voice echoes, among other texts, Psalm 2 (see v. 7), which was probably the Royal Coronation Hymn of the ancient Kingdom of David.  They may have sung Psalm 2 first for Solomon when he ascended the throne of his father David, after the events of 1 Kings 1:32-40.  Psalm 2:7-8 as a part that was probably recited or chanted by the newly-enthroned king:

“I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He 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.’” (Psalm 2:7-8)

So we observe how the extension of the reign of the Son of David over the nations, already seen in previous readings, recurs here.

After the baptism (and his prayer-sojourn in the desert), Jesus begins to travel through Israel proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 4:17).  The “kingdom of God is at hand” because Jesus, the King, has been anointed and begun his earthly reign.  One of the most prominent signs that his reign has begun is the practice of exorcism, which shows that the pretended “ruler of the world” (Satan) has been defeated, and now Jesus is in charge.  The exorcisms fulfill Isaiah’s promise that the servant “upon whom I have put my Spirit” will lead prisoners out of captivity.

Did I say that Jesus’ baptism means something different than it does for us?  Not quite.  Our baptism also marks our washing, anointing, and accession to the throne.  We begin our kingly reign when we are baptized.  In our baptism, we are anointed with the Holy Spirit, receive power over the devil, and are strengthened to “do good and heal those oppressed by the devil.”  We heal them through prayer, proclaiming the good news, and taking them to receive the sacraments, especially baptism and confession, which have exorcistic power.

Some of the finest exorcists in the Church today have said that a good confession is better than an exorcism.  Struggling with sin and spiritual warfare?  A good application of the message of the Readings this week would be to take advantage of the “second Baptism” that we call the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  In this sacrament, Jesus shows forth his royal power by driving out sin and the devil in our lives.  Make plans to make a good, thorough confession this week, to strengthen yourself in your own kingly reign over sin and Satan.

In the Mass at which these readings are read, Jesus himself will later appear in person, under the forms of bread and wine.  These forms, his very Body and Blood, will be declared to be the “New and Everlasting Covenant.”   Then the priest will over His Body and Blood to all who have been baptized into him. In this way, the Servant himself will be “given as a covenant to the people,” in order that those “who live in darkness” may be brought out of confinement.  And so all Isaiah’s words find their fulfillment in Him.

9 comments:

clawjack said...

Since Zachariah, John's father, was a priest might this also signify a commissioning for Jesus to have a priestly ministry as well.

Anonymous said...

This is fantastic! Thanks so much for doing these write-ups. I find them quite helpful. And having this early in the week allows me to reflect on them during the week in preparation for the Mass.

Peace.

Anonymous said...

"Solomon, the Son of David, who ruled an international empire" That's a bit of a stretch. It international, but not an empire.

Anonymous said...

"Solomon, the Son of David, who ruled an international empire" That's a bit of a stretch. Solomon's kingdom was no empire. It was certainly international, but at most it's a kingdom, at least it's a fiefdom. He and David conquered the little nations around Israel, which marked the only time in Israel's history in which it wasn't playing as proxy to Egypt, Assyria or another local power like the City State of Damascus.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Dr. Bergsma! I am also a member of the clergy wanting to thank you for your rich insights & study into our faith that help us to teach the people entrusted to our care

Anonymous said...

Thank you Dr. Bergsma. Your reflections always show the Scriptures as alive, dynamic, and effective- calling us to communion with Christ and the Church.

-from a former student ('04) and military chaplain

Anonymous said...

thanks Dr. B! I used your stuff for my homily.- Fr. PB

Baptism of the Lord # 1
The ABC Readings given on pages 67-69 may be used in place of the A Readings. Use Titus 3:5 for Second Reading.

Sometimes baptism is compared to having GPS installed inside of us, because of verses like Colossians 1:27, “CHRIST IN YOU, the hope of glory.”
The Council of Trent taught that baptism, confirmation and holy orders imprint an indelible “character” on the soul. This means these sacraments have a permanent effect. They cannot be repeated. Can. 849 sums up Scripture and Authoritative Tradition when it says that Baptism is necessary for salvation by actual reception or at least by desire. As the Catechism points out, Jesus said, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved." Second Reading—Titus 3.5 “He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit”—it compliments John 3:5, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
You just have to remember two little numbers—3 and 5.
In fact, there is a presumption of validity if baptism was conferred in a non-Catholic church as long as the traditional Trinitarian formula is used “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,”and the recipient and person baptism intend it. And water is used, speaking of water--
Last summer, I heard someone say, “It's so dry in Georgia that the Baptists are starting to baptize by sprinkling; the Methodists are using wet-wipes, the Presbyterians are giving out rain-checks, and the Catholics are praying for the wine to turn back into water.
Lets see how to make the most of it.

Anonymous said...

cont. 1). One is to keep the indwelling of the Trinity in us by the forgiveness of sins--The Creed says, I confess ONE BAPTISM FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS. “recalculating” on your GPS. This gift of the Holy Spirit serves as our GPS, always re-directing and re-orienting us to the true source of our being.
Well, the Sacrament of Confession is often called a “second baptism” that re-opens the door faith. Pope Francis says, when we confess our weaknesses, our sins, we are asking forgiveness of Jesus, but we also go to renew our Baptism with this forgiveness. And this is beautiful; it is like celebrating the day of your Baptism in every Confession.
Did I say that Jesus’ baptism means something different than it does for us? Not quite. Our baptism also marks our washing, anointing, and accession to the throne. We begin our kingly reign when we are baptized. In our baptism, we are anointed with the Holy Spirit, receive power over the devil, and are strengthened to “do good and heal those oppressed by the devil.” We heal them through prayer, proclaiming the good news, and taking them to receive the sacraments, especially baptism and confession, which have exorcistic power.

Some of the finest exorcists in the Church today have said that a good confession is better than an exorcism. Struggling with sin and spiritual warfare? A good application of the message of the Readings this week would be to take advantage of the “second Baptism” that we call the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this sacrament, Jesus shows forth his royal power by driving out sin and the devil in our lives. Make plans to make a good, thorough confession this week, to strengthen yourself in your own kingly reign over sin and Satan.
One day Queen Victoria of Great Britain visited a paper mill owned by one of her subjects, & the owner was happy to show her through the great plant, explaining in detail the different manufacturing processes. During the journey through the factory she was taken into a large room filled with rags. They were in bins, in bales, & in huge piles on the floor. Some of them had been brought in by ragpickers & were filthy & dirty. These were being sorted & processed by the workmen.
"Do you make paper of these?" the queen inquired.
"Yes, our best paper is made from rags," the owner explained.
She seemed to be in deep thought, then revealed what had been going through her mind. "But how can these dirty rags ever be made into clean white paper?"
"We have washes," the guide explained, "which remove all the dirt and grime. We have chemical processes too, Your Majesty, by which every bit of color is removed from even these red rags."
A few days later the queen was surprised to find on her desk a neatly-wrapped parcel, which on opening she found contained some of the whitest, most beautiful paper she had ever seen. On each sheet were her name& a watermark of her likeness. There was also a note from the man who had shown her through the paper mill.
"Will the queen be pleased to accept a sample of my paper, with the assurance that every sheet was manufactured from the rags which she saw in the warehouse on her recent visit to our plant, & I trust the result is such as even the queen may admire. Will the queen also allow me to say that this process reminds me of baptism? The Lord Jesus can take a person make them clean; & how though their sins be as scarlet, He can make them white as snow. And I can see how He can put His own name upon them.

Anonymous said...

2). Baptism gives us the guidance so that we uncover and make more explicit that will and life in which we decided to turn over to God by our Christian Initiation. Baptism is when Christ’s Public Ministry began. It also begins our mission on earth— In turn, with our baptism, we take his place. His public ministry began.
1229 As the Catechism says, “From the time of the apostles, becoming a Christian has been accomplished by a journey and initiation in several stages. This journey can be covered rapidly or slowly, but certain essential elements will always have to be present: proclamation of the Word, acceptance of the Gospel entailing conversion, profession of faith, Baptism itself, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and admission to Eucharistic communion”
For infants- the capacity to believe is bestowed upon at baptism; but it must become explicit personal faith, which must come later.
But, the indwelling of the Trinity, an especially the Holy Spirit will not force you to cooperate with God’s plan for your life. There is the “shove the dove,” which is signs, inspirations, and promptings, but your will is free.
The mom was telling the Pastor about her family going to
McDonald. The kids were all excited. Well, what kid isn’t, but that is not why they were
excited.They were excited because a seagull landed on the hood of their car.
The little 4-year-old in the car said, “Look Mom! It’s the Holy
Spirit in the form of a dove!” Obviously, that litte tyke was learning something in the church’s preschool. The dove is a symbol of peace and meekness and docility.
Dóciles a esa acción del Espiritu Santo
Dove—is the Holy Spirit, which is the Love between the Father and the Son. The Spirit is also their love for us. E.g. dove on car.
So, baptism for adults means an effort to convert, to leave our sins behind and accept Christ, and “to leave our egoism behind”
Jesus identified himself with people’s needs, including sinners so he got baptized to face the evil of the world for us. The meaning of this divine abasement is love and solidarity. He took our place.
What does it mean for me to be a child of God; what is my mission in this life?
3). Lastly, both popes, B16 (the pope emeritus) and Pope Francis ask us to look up, remember, and celebrate the day of your baptism---
We are encouraged by Pope Francis to learn and memorize the day of our baptism.
Christ was baptized by his cousin John—He knew who the minister was, and the place where it happened, and the date.