Jesus Goes Public

The baptism of Jesus inaugurates his public ministry as an adult. From Matthew’s infancy narrative we have already learned that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of God, Son of David and King of the Jews. From Matthew’s description of John the Baptist we know that John was preparing the way of the “Lord” and looking forward to the “mightier” one coming after him. At last, Jesus the adult comes to John at the Jordan River to seek his baptism. In doing so, Jesus steps onto the public stage.

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism is unique in including a conversation between John and Jesus. When John objects and insists that Jesus should be baptizing him, Jesus dissuades him on the ground that “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” The idea seems to be that in John’s baptism of Jesus, the divine plan was being carried forward.

What was the problem? On the one hand, John’s baptism involved repentance and forgiveness of sins in the face of the coming kingdom of God. Presumably Jesus did not need that. On the other hand, John proclaimed that the “mightier” one would bring a better baptism, not with water only but with the Holy Spirit and fire. Why then did Jesus accept John’s baptism? In doing so Jesus identified with sinful humankind and thus expressed his full solidarity with us. Along these lines Pope Benedict XVI has suggested in his book Jesus of Nazareth that Jesus loaded all our guilt on his shoulders and bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. In this way, the baptism of Jesus by John marked his acceptance of death for the sins of humankind, and Jesus’ coming up from the water was an anticipation of his resurrection.

What happens when Jesus comes out of the water is another epiphany, this time of Jesus the adult. It too is narrated with rich biblical symbolism. The new possibility of communication between God and humankind through Jesus is expressed in turn by the images of the heavens opening, the dove-like descent of the Holy Spirit (see Gn 1:2) and the voice from the heavens (Psalm 29). The voice speaks in the third person singular (“This is…”), indicating a public event, not merely a private religious experience or vision on Jesus’ part. The voice combines key phrases from the Old Testament: “my son” (the Davidic king as God’s adopted son, Psalms 2 and 110), the “beloved” (Isaac in Gn 22) and “with whom I am well pleased” (the Servant of God in Is 42:1). From the start of his public ministry we know who Jesus is.

Today’s selection from Peter’s speech in Acts 10 reminds us that while John baptized Jesus in water, God anointed Jesus with “the Holy Spirit and power.” In our own baptism we are privileged to have been incorporated into Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and granted the gift of the Holy Spirit. We could do so because in Jesus’ baptism by John all righteousness was being fulfilled.

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