Jesus' Baptism

The Christmas Season comes to a close with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. The outpouring of the Spirit and the Father’s declaration "You are my beloved Son" make Jesus’ baptism one of the three traditional Epiphany events. That Jesus submitted to receiving baptism – "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4) at that! – has troubled many. It apparently troubled the evangelist Matthew, who adds a dialogue between Jesus and John that functions as an apologia. This apologetic concern, important as it may be, can easily deflect us from the rich message contained in the celebration of Jesus’ baptism. The synoptic gospels are in agreement that two important things happened when Jesus emerged from the waters of the Jordan River. First, he heard the voice of God the Father naming him as "beloved Son" (according to Mark and Luke, this seems to be a private revelation to Jesus; in Matthew it has the air of a public pronouncement). What is noteworthy is that the Father’s declaration of love comes before Jesus has embarked on his mission of proclaiming God’s kingdom through a ministry of teaching and healing. This serves as a powerful reminder that God loves us, first and foremost, for who we are – not for what we do. Love is a gift to receive and cherish, not a reward to be earned. Second, Jesus experienced in a special manner the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. According to Luke’s gospel (4:16-21), Jesus himself interpreted this empowerment as an anointing (the word from which we get the name "Christ," which means "anointed one"). This anointing with the Holy Spirit and power then led Jesus to go about "doing good and healing all those oppressed" (Acts 10:38). In short, the Spirit’s anointing gave Jesus a clearer sense of his mission as well as the empowerment to carry it out. Reflecting on these mysteries in Jesus’ life sheds light on our own baptism. Whereas Jesus is God’s Son by nature, we are God’s adopted children through baptism. That is, like Jesus, each one of us has been dramatically named "beloved child" by God. Yet Baptism involves more than the three-fold immersion in water and the invocation of the Trinity. It also entails being anointed with the Sacred Chrism and being called and empowered – each in our own way – to be priest, prophet, and shepherd after the manner of Jesus. Thus, like Jesus, we receive the gift of the same Spirit for mission. It is very appropriate, then, that the Christmas season ends with the celebration of Jesus’ baptism. As we have been celebrating the Incarnation of Jesus as Emmaunel ("God-with-us"), we are now reminded of our privilege and call to continue to make Jesus present through our allowing the Spirit to work within us to ’do good,’ to be agents of healing, and to work against oppression. Thomas D. Stegman, S.J.

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