Baptism of the Lord - a reflection

Monday, January 10, 2022 - 10:45

Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction and please re-look at the readings for Sunday before continuing (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):

Three wonders mark this day we celebrate: today the star led the Magi to the manger; today water was changed into wine at the marriage feast; today Christ desired to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation, alleluia. Thus the antiphon for the Magnificat at Evening Prayer for the Epiphany of the Lord which we celebrated on Thursday. In this year of cycle C we celebrate all three events because for next Sunday the Gospel will be the wedding feast at Cana.

However, only Matthew and Mark tell of John baptizing Jesus. In Luke the issue is avoided while it is left vague in John. Only in Matthew does the voice from the cloud proclaim “This is my Son, the Beloved”. In this Gospel, the voice makes a public proclamation which is the basis for today’s feast.. For Mark and Luke, the baptism becomes instead an intensely personal experience for Jesus as the voice says “You are my Son...” 

As I noted in an earlier reflection, Luke is careful to move John off-stage before introducing Jesus. The first paragraph of this Sunday’s Gospel therefore rather artificially makes John present. Luke moreover does not say who baptised Jesus, just that he was. Notable as well about the baptism in Luke’s account is that Jesus was praying after being baptised, a typical comment from Luke, and that the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form. 

For all four Gospels despite their differences, the baptism and the encounter with John is the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. This is an Epiphany moment. That maybe why Luke follows the baptism with the genealogy of Jesus. Whereas Matthew begins with Abraham, emphasising Jesus’ Jewish origins, Luke go the other way right back to Adam, Son of God. Jesus is of course the Son of God but his genealogy brings out his complete sharing with us in the human experience down through the ages.

The Old Testament reading which goes with Luke’s account of the baptism this Sunday is the poem “Comfort, O Comfort my people” from the prophet Isaiah. The poem is especially well known from the way it is used in Handel’s Messiah. Given that this poem is so familiar a closer reading and reflection will be worthwhile. It is usually associated with Advent because the line “in the desert prepare the way of the Lord” is used by the Gospels to announce the ministry of John the Baptist. In this Sunday’s setting of the Baptism of the Lord, the emphasis is now on the end of the poem and the different ways the Lord comes. 

The poem opens the middle part of the prophecy of Isaiah commonly known as Second Isaiah. The eleven chapters form a well integrated group where the background is the exile in Babylon which is coming to an end. The prophet is seeking to encourage the exiles to leave Babylon and make the dangerous journey across the desert back to an uncertain future in Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, many preferred the certainty and comforts of Babylon and a strong Jewish community continued there for many centuries. In this opening poem the prophet is presenting his credentials, he is announcing that he has had a call from God to speak to the people. Rather oddly the Sunday reading leaves out what may be the most important stanza. It is therefore important to read the whole poem in your Bible.

Looking through the poem, what stands out is that twice a voice cries. The result is that the poem is carefully arranged in four stanzas including the beginning and end. By analogy with earthly kings, the notion arose of God having a heavenly council; this council appears a number of times in the Old Testament. The beginning of Job is a good example. Members of the Council never challenge the one God. Strict monotheism is a theme of this second part of Isaiah. Accordingly, the poem has several speakers: God himself, two or more voices and one question from the prophet: What shall I cry? The anonymity of the prophet is remarkable, he is never introduced like other prophets. The result is that he is there in the background while it is his message which becomes all important. That may not make it an ideal poem to apply to Jesus though we read the poem with him in mind.

The poem therefore begins with God speaking to his Council, the imperatives are in the plural. As so often with Hebrew words, “comfort” has a far deeper emotional meaning than its English equivalent. Once again we hear “my people” and “your God” whereas for the call of the original prophet Isaiah they were “this people”. Israel is now being pardoned for her sins, there will be a new Covenant.

The next stanza begins with a voice crying, one of the Council: prepare the way of the Lord. There is to be a return from exile with God himself leading his people. There will be a New Exodus, a renewal of the original Exodus from Egypt. The climax will be the revelation of the glory of the Lord. As Christians, we see this fulfilled in the Prologue to John’s Gospel read last Sunday: when the Word was made flesh and we beheld his glory. This stanza ends with the assurance that the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Another voice from the Council says “cry out” and this is the stanza missing from the reading. Just this once we hear the prophet himself: “What shall I cry?” His reluctance is clear, with regard to the people he is pessimistic, they are fickle “like grass”. Yet God is constant and so another voice responds, taking further the ending of the previous stanza: the word of our God shall stand for ever.

Now we come to the conclusion which may be the important part of the reading for this feast of the Baptism On a high mountain yet another voice makes a proclamation on behalf of God. Glad tidings is good news, the word which would be used in due course for the four books we call Gospels. Of this, the Church is the herald. There follows a theophany as on Mount Sinai: Fear not, here is your God coming... This theophany is a two part epiphany. On the one hand, the Lord God comes as the mighty, the majestic one. On the other, he comes as a shepherd, an important biblical image for the ruler who comes to his people in their need and cares for them.

As Christians, the message of comfort is a message of hope for us. Hope in our God who is faithful to his promises, who became man for us and fulfilled those promises with his blood and by rising from the dead. With the message of this anonymous prophet we too can bring good news and hope to our own age which has such a great need of faith.


Image above: Granada - The Baptism of Christ painting in main nave of church Monasterio de la Cartuja by Fray Juan Sanchez Cotan (1560 - 1627) (with permission of Istockphoto. com)