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John R. DonahueJanuary 01, 2000

The feast of the Baptism of the Lord concludes the Advent-Christmas liturgical season, and is also the first Sunday in Ordinary Time. In the early church it was closely linked to Epiphany as a "manifestation" of the Son of God. This first appearance of Jesus is marked by the solemn biblical formula, "It came to pass" (see Lk. 1:4; 2:1), which links the baptism to significant beginnings in salvation history. The baptism also marks the advent of the stronger one (1:7), who submits to John’s baptism of repentance in solidarity with the sinful human condition (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21).

The focus of the narrative is on the rending of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit and the heavenly voice pronouncing Jesus as "my beloved son on whom my favor rests." In the ancient cosmology, the tearing open of the heavens would symbolize the possibility of divine-human communication (Ezek. 1:1; Jn. 1:51). It is also an eschatological motif (see Isa. 24:17-20; 64:1, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down"; Rev. 19:11), and foreshadows the "tearing open" of the temple veil at the death of Jesus. These words of divine acceptance reflect different Old Testament texts: Ps. 2:7, a psalm of royal adoption; Isa. 42:1-2, the first of four servant songs from Second Isaiah. It describes a servant chosen by God, "in whom my soul delights"; "I have put my spirit in him." Since Mark uses frequently the literary technique of foreshadowing, the heavenly declaration anticipates the voice at the Transfiguration, "This is my beloved son." Jesus’ baptism also foreshadows that "baptism" when he will be drenched in suffering, and will also be the destiny of those who would follow him. The gift of the spirit and heavenly voice are simultaneously a prophetic commission to Jesus (see Isa. 11:2; 61:1; 63:9), which will unfold throughout the Gospel, as 9e himself confronts the mystery of suffering and death.

This narrative provided the Markan community an opportunity not simply to understand Jesus, but also to reflect on their own baptism. By God’s gift of faith they moved from change of heart (Mk. 1:14) to baptism, and, in Pauline terms, became God’s adopted sons and daughters through the gift of the Spirit. This feast challenges Christians today to reflect on their own baptism as the gift of Spirit, and as a commission to live and proclaim the good news amid the paradox of following the "more powerful" one even to the powerlessness of the cross.

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