The celebration of the Baptism of the Lord concentrates our thoughts on the purpose of Christ’s birth. At Christmas we rejoiced in the wonder of the incarnation, the Son of God born into the frailty of our humanity. Now we contemplate the scene of his baptism. Here, as a prelude to his public ministry, his baptism reveals the inner life that sustained the child born to Mary.
Christ was born as the fulfilment of the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights. I have endowed him with my spirit that he might bring true justice to the nations.”
The prophet described the servant, the Messiah who was to come, in words of unparalleled intimacy. He was to be the chosen one, the one in whom the God of Israel delights. The language implies a ministry that would embrace forsaken humanity, making of us the delight of the Lord. This Servant, the revelation of the Father’s delight and endowed with his Spirit, would raise humanity to the heart of God.
The heart of his ministry would not be the might that shouts on street corners, but the humility that understands, that does not raise its voice. His strength, while sensitive to the crushed and wavering, would endure until its purpose was achieved in us. He would come to open the eyes of the blind, to open our eyes to the love of God. He would come to free captives from prison, to free us from the darkness that imprisons our hearts.
Matthew’s Gospel describes the reluctance with which John the Baptist greeted the request of Jesus for baptism. “It is I who need baptism from you, and yet you come to me!”
In the sense that the baptism of John had been a baptism of repentance, it was true that Jesus, the sinless one, had no need of such a baptism. Jesus was sinless, but his acceptance of John’s baptism expressed a longing to share our frailty, thereby leading us to his own baptism, the sharing of his life as the Son of God.
As Jesus came forth from the waters of John’s baptism the meaning of the baptism that he would offer was revealed.
“And suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove coming down on him. And a voice spoke from heaven: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.’ ”
The voice heard at the baptism of Jesus declared him to be the faithful servant promised by the prophet Isaiah. Every thought, every word and gesture in the ministry of Jesus would be rooted in the words that accompanied his baptism. He would speak not of himself, but in the name of the Father who loved him and the Spirit who never ceased to accompany him. In this we see the meaning of our own baptism.
In Christ we are loved by the Father and enabled by the Holy Spirit. We do not live our lives in a frustrated loneliness that can never reach beyond its own sinfulness. In Christ we have become the beloved of the Father, and it is in the Spirit of them both that we find our home.