Today we move from one beginning to another, from Jesus’ coming among us in the flesh, celebrated during the Christmas season, to his coming among us in ministry remembered during Ordinary Time. His baptism by John inaugurates this ministry, and it is commemorated today.
The Gospel says that the people wondered whether John might have been the Christ, the “anointed one,” of God. How could they have thought that? Which anointed one did they have in mind? The anointed king? Certainly no one would have mistaken John for royalty. The anointed priest? Though he belonged to a priestly house through his father Zechariah (Lk 1:5), John did not follow in his father’s footsteps to service in the temple. Which anointed one might they have had in mind?
The people who came to John may not have known who this anointed might be, but the reading from Isaiah suggests that the servant of the Lord upon whom the spirit was bestowed was the anointed one. Though the identity of this servant is shrouded in mystery, some of his characteristics are described by the prophet. He will bring justice to the nations; he will care for the bruised reed and the smoldering wick. He will open the eyes of the blind and free prisoners.
We Christians recognize in this description of the servant the profile of Jesus, the anointed one of God. Jesus’ identity and his ministry are confirmed by his own anointing by the Spirit at the time of his baptism and by the voice from heaven. This was the same voice that stilled the unruly waters of chaos described in today’s responsorial psalm. Out of those primeval waters emerged an ordered universe, one that would produce much life. Out of the waters of the Jordan stepped an unpretentious man who would transform the world. We too emerged from the waters at the time of our baptism, waters that had been transformed by him. At that time, we were commissioned to continue the ministry that he began.
The reading from Acts demonstrates the fruits of that commission. Peter, representative of the entire church, moves out of the confines of the believing community into the unfamiliar realm of the gentiles. He points to Jesus’ baptism and anointing by God as the beginning of the marvelous spread of the Gospel. The baptism of the household of the gentile Cornelius is an example of its universal scope. The Gospel must be preached in every nation.
Through baptism, we are all now the anointed of God, continuing what Jesus began, and doing it after the manner of the gentle servant of the Lord of whom Isaiah spoke.