Our Gospel today, neatly presented in two paragraphs, describes for us two elements, one human and the other divine. The first sentence sets the scene: “The people were filled with expectation….” This brief statement conjures up for us a sense of the excitement that is abuzz among the people. The focus of the excitement is John the Baptist. Prior to today’s passage, John had been calling the crowds to receive a “baptism of repentance.” He also powerfully challenged them to make radical changes in their lives. His striking witness and strong message moved the people to speculate: could John be the promised Messiah? Expectation that the Messiah would come soon had been brewing among the Jews for quite some time; now it is at a boiling point, triggered by the figure of John. The crowds are expecting God to make a powerful and decisive entry into human affairs.
By the end of today’s Gospel, we find their expectation directly affirmed by God himself. After Jesus is baptized, the Spirit descends upon him, and the Father speaks out from Heaven: Jesus is his beloved Son who is pleasing to him. The Jews had experienced God’s intervention throughout their history. Yet this time, his intervention is not a dramatic event like the parting of the Red Sea or a liberation from foreign rulers. God’s intervention is a Person, Jesus Christ, his own beloved Son. Humanity expects, God affirms – but in an altogether surprising way.
Jesus’ arrival and his Baptism by John come as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, specifically those of Isaiah, from whom today’s liturgy offers two optional readings, which both point prophetically to John the Baptist and Jesus. The selection from Isaiah 40 speaks of “a voice” crying out to “prepare the way of the LORD.” St. Luke quotes this very passage a few verses before today’s Gospel (cf. Lk 3:3-6). This voice was sent out in the dryness of the desert because God desires to give comfort to his people. It is a voice that, though forceful, speaks tenderly to Jerusalem, focusing on proclamation of good news and on expiation of guilt. John the Baptist’s message of repentance surely fulfills this prophetic promise.
The reading from Isaiah 42 prepares the way for us to hear the voice of the Father after Jesus is baptized. Through Isaiah, the Lord says, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased.” At the Jordan, he reveals that his chosen servant is his own “beloved Son.” We learn from the prophet that Jesus’ mission is one of gentleness and compassion; he is sent to bring forth the victory of justice to the nations, but he will do so gently.
Aside from the crowd’s expectation, another human element that we can find in the first paragraph of today’s Gospel is John’s humility. While the crowd is excited about him and enamored by his teachings, this attention does not distract John from his mission. He recognizes that he is a mere precursor, tasked to prepare God’s people to welcome the One to come, “one mightier than I.” John knows the lowliness of his place before the One who is coming: “I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.” Such human abasement sets the stage for the fulfillment of God’s plan. After John dutifully fulfills his mission, he sees his humble statement fulfilled. The One whose sandals he was not worthy to loosen is revealed, affirmed by the Holy Spirit descending upon him. While John baptized with mere natural water, Jesus “will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.” He will usher in a new creation. John’s message of repentance will be perfected in Jesus’ message of conversion and salvation. The former is human abasement, the latter, a divine fulfillment.
St. Peter proclaims the good news of the new creation in today’s reading from Acts. He says that after the baptism of repentance that John preached, God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, affirming him to be the Messiah. He went about doing good: healing people and setting them free from the oppression of the devil. Repentance opens the way to deep conversion, freedom, and union with God. This two-stage process enables us “to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,” as St. Paul says in his Letter to Titus. Because “the grace of God has appeared,” we confidently “await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.” Because of him, we can “be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”
This extraordinary gift is granted to us in Baptism. Built on the new order that Jesus established in his own Baptism, the Sacrament of Baptism inspires us with his Spirit and fills us with his life – marvelously connecting the human and the divine, the natural and the supernatural. The Gospel tells us that Jesus, after he had been baptized, “was praying.” While he prays, his communion of love with the Holy Spirit and the Father is suddenly revealed. When we pray, because we have received the grace of Baptism, we too can rely on the Holy Spirit and be sure that the Father looks on us too as his beloved sons and daughters, with whom, in Christ, he is well pleased.
What does my Baptism mean to me? How do I strive to live up to my baptismal promises? How has repentance opened me to deep conversion, freedom, and union with God?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 2. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.