Thursday, January 08, 2015

"He Will Baptize You With the Holy Spirit": Readings for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

This Sunday the Church celebrates the Baptism of Jesus, an event that is every bit as important as it is rich in meaning, and this week’s readings help to draw us deeper into the mystery of Christ’s baptism. While for the first and second readings, along with the responsorial psalm, there are alternative readings for this Sunday, our reflection will center on the readings put forth as the first option in the Lectionary, beginning with the first reading from Isaiah 42.

FIRST READING: 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.
In order to properly interpret Isaiah 42, it is important to place it within the larger framework deutero-Isaiah (40-55), which famously begins with the “good news” (Isa 40:9) of Yahweh’s redemption of His people (Isaiah 40:1-11).

Yet this “good news” is offered to a people in exile who appear to doubt whether God is able to rescue them from their captivity in Babylon. However, the good news is that even though Israel has failed to trust in Yahweh’s power, he is going to bring about the salvation of his people.

In 40:12-31, the prophet has Yahweh enter into a rhetorical disputation with Israel, one in which Yahweh addresses His people who appear to have been questioning His faithfulness by challenging their very ability to reasonably call the righteousness of God into question.

After this, the disputation turns to a legal setting where through a series of speeches, Yahweh declares that He alone is God and He demonstrates this through His sovereign rule over the Kings of the earth (Cyrus included).

This leads to our passage known as the first of the “servant songs”, where the prophet declares that the servant brings delight to Yahweh for he has put his spirit upon the servant in order to bring justice to the earth.

While some commentators argue that Cyrus was the original servant, [1] various scholars have also suggested that the servant represents all Israel corporately,[2] an interpretation which is also found in the Septuagint (LXX).[3]

Moreover, in Isaiah 11 the enterprise of being empowered by the Spirit to bring justice to the nations was entrusted to the Davidide; as a result of this connection, John Oswalt suggests a messianic interpretation of the servant, [4] an interpretation that is followed in Matthew 12:18-21.

Without deciding on the identity of the servant in its original context, it is clear that Yahweh has placed His Spirit upon His servant (s) in order to bring justice to the nations (Isaiah 42:1, 4), in particular, calling the servant for a victory of justice, as well as to be a covenant of the people and a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6).

For our purposes, it is important to notice the connection between the servant and justice, for it is the servant’s mission to bring forth justice (or righteousness) for the nations. This leads to the question: what would it mean for the servant to bring forth justice for the nations?

In his recent work Old Testament Theology, Walter Moberly notes that the word pair “justice and righteousness” runs throughout all of Isaiah in a manner that points to their importance within canonical Isaiah, and Moberly suggests that this points to the following theological rationale:
The Isaianic text presumes a certain kind of analogy between divine and human which may be summarized: Israel is to embody those moral qualities which characterize YHWH himself—Israel is to practice justice and righteousness because this is how YHWH himself acts.[5] 
As a result, one would expect that the work of the servant would somehow bring about the practice of justice among the nations. This is an important backdrop for Jesus’ baptism, but before turning to the Gospel the Church puts before us both a responsorial Psalm and a second reading that deserve our attention.

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.
SECOND READING: 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.”
In the second reading, Peter tells the house of Cornelius that God now accepts Gentiles as he does Jews, the best imaginable news for a house comprised of God-fearing Gentiles. As Luke records the story, Cornelius was a devout man of Caesarea who “feared God”, likely signifying that Cornelius worshipped the God of Israel, but not as a full proselyte through the reception of circumcision (Acts 10:1-2). 
During afternoon prayer, Cornelius is told by an angel that his prayers have been answered, for he is to send men to Joppa to bring Peter back to Caesarea (Acts 10:3-8). 
Luke continues his narrative with Peter at prayer the next day, and he sees a vision of a great sheet descending from heaven containing various “unclean” animals, that is, animals that were prohibited from being eaten under Mosaic Law (Acts 10:9-12).
However, a voice accompanied the vision telling Peter to kill and eat the animals. Peter refuses in the name of fidelity to Yahweh’s law, yet the voice corrects Peter by saying that he is not to call unclean what God has made clean (Acts 10:13-15).
After this happens three times, the visions cease, and Peter is confused as to what the visions might mean. However, Peter’s answer soon comes when the men whom Cornelius had sent to bring him back to Caesarea arrive in Joppa and the Holy Spirit tells Peter that he is to go with them without hesitation. (Acts 10:16-20). 
When Peter arrives in Caesarea, he proceeds to proclaim the good news to Cornelius that God accepts and forgives both Jew and Gentile without partiality through Jesus Christ (Acts 10:34-43).
After Peter is finished speaking, the Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius and those who hear Peter’s word, leading Peter to state that baptism should not be withheld from these Gentiles, for it is clear that they have received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-48).
As a result, it is possible to view Peter’s proclamation in this passage as broadly suggesting that the promises found in the first reading from Isaiah 42 are now fulfilled through Jesus Christ, for now God’s salvation has indeed come to the nations. 
In coming to the Gospel reading, the deeper logic behind Peter’s statement is able to be viewed through the mystery of Jesus’ baptism. 
GOSPEL: 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 our Gospel reading, John the Baptist explains the superiority of Jesus’ ministry versus his own, for while John baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. In Mark’s Gospel the very next scene records Jesus coming to John to be baptized, an interesting juxtaposition in light of John’s previous statement concerning the inferiority of his baptism versus Jesus baptizing with the Holy Spirit. 
As a result, it is natural to ask: what would lead Mark to connect John’s statement concerning Jesus and Jesus’ baptism?

While it is not possible to know with certainty what Mark was precisely thinking, the text itself gives us some important hints regarding the inner rationale behind our reading, and it appears to center on the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus when he is baptized.
Before going further, this is not to suggest that Jesus was without the Holy Spirit simply speaking before his baptism; rather, it is to suggest that at his baptism he is anointed for an essential aspect of his messianic task according to Mark’s Gospel, that is, to baptize with the Holy Spirit.

In other words, the possible connection could be stated as followed: Jesus was “anointed” with the Holy Spirit in order to baptize with the Holy Spirit.[6]
In light of the close connection between baptism and reception of the Spirit here and in the rest of the NT (see John 3:3-6; Acts 2:38; I Cor 6:11, 12:12-13; Titus 3:4-6) it is reasonable to suggest that Jesus’ baptism is somehow connected to our baptism. What is less immediately clear is how Jesus’ baptism is connected to our baptism. 
In looking to illuminate this relationship, many Church Fathers spoke of Christ’s baptism as that which made the waters holy, that is, Christ’s baptism enabled baptism to become a sacramental source of life. Perhaps the earliest example of this is found in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (110 AD) when he tells the Ephesians, “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan, both from the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit. He was born and baptized in order that by his suffering he might cleanse the water” (Eph. 18:2).
At this point it is important to note that this manner of thinking should not lead one to conclude that the waters themselves have a magical power, but rather, that through the waters of baptism Christ himself baptizes with the Holy Spirit. 
How does this work? And moreover, how does it bring about ‘justice” among the nations? To answer these questions, it is worth taking a brief look at a few texts from Paul on baptism.[7]
In I Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul tells the Corinthians that the those who lack justice will not inherit the kingdom of God. However, Paul is clear that the Corinthians used to be unjust, but now they have been “washed, sanctified, and justified” in the name of Jesus and the Spirit of God (I Cor 6:11). 
In other words, it appears that Paul is telling the Corinthians that through baptism, they are have been justified and thereby empowered to inherit the Kingdom of God.
A similar line of reasoning is found in Romans 6, for after telling the Romans that through Jesus Christ the reign of grace has been inaugurated (Rom 5:21), Paul is clear that this does not allow for believers to remain in sin so that grace might abound. Once again, the reason for this centers on baptism, for Paul tells the Romans that due to being buried with Christ in baptism, they have been freed (literally, “justified”) from sin (Romans 6:4-7). 
As a result of such a profound baptismal union with Christ, Paul can then proceed to tell the Romans that they are now “slaves to justice (or righteousness)” through the empowerment that comes by being “under grace.”[8] 
To connect these Pauline texts on baptism to our analysis to date, if the Holy Spirit’s work in baptism brings about true justice in the believer, then Isaiah 42 finds a fitting fulfillment in the sacrament of baptism. For through baptism, Paul states that one is made a member of the body of Christ, and this baptismal union is for both Jew and Greek alike (I Corinthians 12:12-13). 


[1] For instance, see Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55: A New Translation and Commentary, AB 19 (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 210-211. Yet Blenkinsopp also notes the ambiguity of the language in regard to the identity of the servant. 

[2] For instance, see Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 325. 

[3] The LXX reads: Ιακωβ ὁ παῖς μου ἀντιλήμψομαι αὐτοῦ Ισραηλ ὁ ἐκλεκτός μου προσεδέξατο αὐτὸν ἡ ψυχή μου ἔδωκα τὸ πνεῦμά μου ἐπ᾽ αὐτόν κρίσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν ἐξοίσει (Isa 42:1).

[4] See John N. Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 109-110. 

[5] R.W.L. Moberly, Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 170. 

[6] It is important to note that Christ’s baptism by water is not his only baptism, for he also speaks of another “baptism”, that is, his death on the cross (Mark 10:38). By connecting Christ’s two baptisms together with his resurrection we are able to gain a clearer picture of their inner theological rationale: the crucified and risen Christ baptizes with the Holy Spirit through the waters of baptism. 

[7] For more on Paul and baptism, see the terrific article of Br. Isaac Morales, O.P., “Baptism and Union with Christ,” in “In Christ” in Paul, edited by Michael J. Thate, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Constantine R. Campbell, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 384.

[8] For more on this, see John Barclay’s magnificent “Under Grace: The Christ-Gift and the Construction of a Christian Habitus,” in Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8, edited by Beverly Roberts Gaventa (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2013), 59-76.


Anon said...

Please don't use God's Unutterable Name (YHWH):

"in accordance with immemorial tradition, which indeed is already evident in the above-mentioned “Septuagint” version, the name of almighty God expressed by the Hebrew tetragrammaton (YHWH) and rendered in Latin by the word Dominus, is to be rendered into any given vernacular by a word equivalent in meaning."

Michael Barber said...


Isn't that regulating liturgical practice and not teaching? It is my understanding that even rabbis would use the divine name when teaching.