Baptism sets us off on our Christ-centred journey

  • January 2, 2014

Baptism of the Lord (Year A) Jan. 12 (Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17)

Who was the prophetic figure described in Isaiah’s Song of the Servant? A name was not given, but clearly the identity must have been clear to the generation for whom this was written. Many believe it was a collective symbol of the nation of Israel. This would fit nicely with the mission described in the passage: justice, light to the nations, healer of the suffering and liberator of the oppressed.

The gentleness and meekness of the Servant reflected not only Israel’s rather helpless condition in exile, but also the divine principles to which the nation bore witness. The prophecy recalled Israel to her original vocation and mission, and added the assurance of the empowerment of God’s Spirit.

The Servant symbol is one that evokes a variety of responses and is not limited by time and place. It speaks of all who take seriously their call to manifest God’s compassion and justice by their commitment to service. In this sense, it is perhaps fortuitous that no specific name was attached to the Servant figure. Hopefully each of us will attach our own name to it and others will do the same. The first generations of Christians rightfully associated the name of Jesus with the symbol, for He was the perfect example of its qualities.

This was evident in Peter’s account of the life and ministry of Jesus. He excitedly related all the good that had been accomplished by Jesus, who had been empowered by the Holy Spirit. The same wisdom and gentleness described in the Servant Song was evident in the teachings of Jesus and His actions. Rather than being the champion and saviour of the few, Jesus made it clear that God’s compassion and grace was being extended to all. Anyone of any nation who does what is right is acceptable to God — God shows no partiality and is not owned or controlled by anyone.

The baptism of Jesus was an event that made some in the early Church uneasy. Why was he baptized, especially by John the Baptist? After all, John’s baptism was one of repentance and Jesus was proclaimed as the one like us in all things but sin. We can be quite sure that Jesus was baptized at the hands of John, for the first generation of Christians certainly would not have made up something so difficult to explain. Each of the evangelists handled it in their unique fashion. Matthew added a bit of midrash — imaginative exegesis — to the account of the baptism that he received from Mark. The little conversation between Jesus and John was intended to set matters straight for Matthew’s audience and to make it clear that Jesus chose to be there. After all, He was entering into and embracing the experience of being human and being a son of Israel, thereby fulfilling all righteousness.

For Jesus, it was a moment of revelation and self-awareness. His own consciousness developed during His childhood years. His growing awareness of a special relationship with God the Father was illuminated in a moment of absolute clarity at His baptism. From then on, He was aware of His mission and status as God’s Son. He would soon be tested before beginning His ministry and journey towards His death and resurrection. He never looked back and His life was no longer His own.

Perhaps it is difficult for us to appreciate the mission orientation and call to discipleship that is so closely linked with baptism. There is a tendency to view it as some sort of pass for heaven or membership badge. In the early Church, baptism was usually an adult decision, and it was recognized as a life-changing event and an invitation to labour in the vineyard of the Lord. It is possible to recapture a sense of the transformative and empowering nature of our baptism. Making our baptism the frequent focus of reflection, prayer and meditation and asking God for the gift of mission and discipleship that goes with it is a practice that can inspire and renew. Baptism is precious beyond words but it is only the first step of many on a rich and Christ-filled life journey.