The Baptism of the Lord 2021

My Dear People, 

Given the exalted baptism that Jesus is going to administer, (v.8), it seems surprising that he now comes in the role of a lowly penitent to be baptized in the Jordan by John. Mark does not explain why Jesus comes to the Jordan valley from his hometown in Nazareth of Galilee but we can surmise that he does so because he recognizes John’s ministry as the prelude to his own (see v. 14).  Why does Jesus submit to  “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v.4)? Not because he himself is a sinner. But because of his total solidarity with sinful humanity, a solidarity that begins now and will lead inexorably to the cross. Indeed, Jesus' baptism is an anticipation of his passion. Immersion in water is a symbol of death (see Ps 69:2-3), and Jesus will later speak of his death as a “baptism” (Mark 10:38). Jesus, like Moss, acts as the ideal intercessor, not standing apart from sinners but in solidarity with them under God’s judgment (Exod. 32:31-32). In so doing, he acknowledges God’s just judgment on sin, while at the same time offering to God the response of perfect repentance on behalf of the people. 

Jesus’ coming up out of the water is answered by a coming down of the Spirit from above. According to the Old Testament, sin creates an insuperable barrier, distancing humanity from the holiness of God (see Isa 59:2). God would “come down” to his people only after they had been cleansed of impurity (Exod. 19:10-11). The Spirit’s descent upon Jesus foreshadows his descent upon the Church at Pentecost, after sin has been removed from the cross. 

The whole cosmos is impacted by Jesus’ act of humanity. The heavens are not gently opened but torn asunder—a sign that the barrier between God and man is being removed. Israel had pleaded for God to intervene decisively in human events:  “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Isa 63:19). Now that plea is answered! The same verb “tear” will reappear at the crucial point near the end of the Gospel, when the curtain of the temple is torn from top to bottom at Jesus’ death (Mark 15:38), completing the reconciliation of the heaven and earth that began at his baptism. 

The Spirit’s descent in the form of a dove recalls the Spirit hovering over the waters at creation (Gen 1:2) and the dove that signaled a new beginning for the world after the flood (Gen8:8-12). As in his opening line, Mark again hints that, in Jesus, God is bringing about a new creation. 

Jesus’ baptism is a turning point in his life. With this event he is “anointed by the Spirit” (see Isa. 61:1; Acts 10:38) and formally inaugurates his mission as Messiah. By sharing in Israel’s baptism of repentance, he has committed himself fully to the Father’s call on his life: to be the obedient servant who would be innocent yet “counted among the wicked” because he bears the sins of man (Isa. 42:1; 53:11-12). 

In further response to Jesus’ baptism is a voice (...) from the heavens, obviously that of God the Father. Now we see the whole Trinity involved in this event. God himself puts his stamp of approval on Jesus’ mission and delights in his obedient acceptance of it. His words of affirmation, You are my beloved Son: with you I am well pleased, are full of scriptural echoes. In Ps 2:7, God says to the king of Israel, “you are my son; today I have begotten you,” and promises him all the nations of the earth as an inheritance. In Isaiah, God speaks of a servant who would faithfully carry out his will: “Behold my servant whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him” (Isa. 41:1). Jesus is the Messiah-King and chosen servant on whom the Spirit rests. And like Isaac, the “beloved son” of Abraham (Gen 22:12), he will willingly offer his life in sacrifice. In Hebrew thought, “beloved son” denotes “only son”; thus, Jesus’ relationship with the father is unlike that of anyone else. 

Mark does not indicate that anyone but Jesus saw the Spirit descend or heard the divine voice. Jesus’ exalted identity is concealed under the appearance of an ordinary Jewish man coming to John for baptism. But Mark’s readers are privy to this secret exchange between the divine Persons. 

Yours in Christ, 

Fr. Vincent Clemente


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