The baptism of Jesus

The four evangelists are unanimous in saying that Jesus left Galilee to follow in the footsteps of someone called John. John’s preaching had attracted the attention of all the repentant people: a large number of people gathered around him at the mouth of the Jordan. As for Jesus, leaving everything behind, he also goes to the Jordan to become a disciple of the Baptist. He also had to discern among the many «signs of the times» and at a certain point decided to follow John. With faith he accepted John’s offer, whose lifestyle and dress clearly manifested prophetic features, something that had not been seen in centuries. Jesus never denied the authority of John the Baptist. Until the end of his mission, when asked in Jerusalem where his authority came from, Jesus will refer to John and indirectly affirms and believes from the bottom of his heart that John’s baptism comes from God and that he is in no way the result of a purely human undertaking. Jesus believed in his precursor.

John’s behavior, like his language, was critical. He did not gather the masses in Jerusalem, in the sacrosanct center-the Temple-where all religious meetings were held year after year with much notoriety. We can even notice in this ascetic a certain pessimism towards the existing religious structures and their mediations. Like Elijah, Osea or Jeremiah, the Baptist intends to bring the people back to the desert, in a kind of cultural regression, to live there the Covenant with God with a renewed and purified disposition of mind. «The axe is already in the roots of the trees!» «Such is the urgency of his call, an urgency that no longer suffers delays and consumes it with zeal. In John’s eyes, it is a question of achieving a radical change, an authentic «conversion» (in Greek: metanoia; in Hebrew teshuva). This is concretized in a new symbolic action that confirms the commitment of listeners and disciples: a unique and complete immersion in the waters of the Jordan.

In the Jordan

The Jordan has two characteristics that make this river out of the ordinary compared to all the other rivers on our planet (see, however, Naaman’s opinion in 2K 5:12!): The Jordan is the lowest of all the rivers: descends to more than five hundred meters below sea level, its name says what it is since “yarden” means: the one who descends (from the Hebrew verb yarad, descend).

From the perspective of salvation history, the Jordan River is also unique: it constitutes the historical boundary through which the people of Israel entered under the leadership of Joshua, into the land promised by God to the patriarchs.

Whoever is baptized in the Jordan, at the call of John, must descend lower than all the deep waters on the earth’s crust. Jesus crosses the border that once gave access to the Promised Land and does so with a new disposition of spirit. Receive baptism as a convert, open to whatever may happen from God. In fact, the critical stance of the Baptist goes hand in hand with immense hope: new times are coming. God Himself is willing to visit His people, threatening those who live in injustice, freeing those who will truly convert.

Who responded at a call like this? People of all kinds, but probably not mainly from the upper bourgeoisie or the priestly aristocracy of Jerusalem. The evangelists speak of «crowds», of «sinful tax collectors», of «prostitutes», of «people» (Lk 3,10-13; 7,29-30; Mt 21,31-32). The Pharisees, Sadducees and jurists probably also had to go to the Baptist, but more to observe him than to be baptized by him (cf. Mt 3,7; 21,32; Jn 1,19.24; 3,25; 5,33.35)
Jesus acceded to this truly eccentric message of the Baptist. He joined «sinners» of all kinds and asked John to baptize him.

This gives grounds for reflection: Jesus’ first public act impacts with his humility; he literally «descended» to the lowest waters of the planet, in the midst of a crowd that considered itself sinful. It was also an act of faith and dedication on his part: he took seriously the words of the Baptist, ready to enter into the new perspectives that open to him. He got totally involved.

Immersion and full revelation

When Jesus comes out of the water, something incredible happens. Such a commotion is read and felt in the narrative of the four evangelists.

The evangelist John describes the event as something that unfolds within the Baptist and causes him a real revolution. He tells John himself to testify: «I did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me: “He on whom you see the Spirit descending and resting on him, this is he who baptizes in the Holy Spirit”. And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God» (Jn 1,30-34).

Mark opens the lens of his camera to the maximum: the moment Jesus comes out of the water, «he sees the heavens break». The humble descent of Jesus corresponds to a cosmic tear in the higher spheres. «The Spirit like a dove descends upon him» and a voice from heaven reveals the meaning of the event: «You are my beloved Son, you have all my favor». In several inter-testamentary texts, the dove symbolizes prophecy. Jesus here expressly receives «the spirit of prophecy». The Word of Heaven contains at least three interlaced scriptural quotations, each from an unmistakably messianic perspective (see Ps 2,7; Gen 22,2 and Is 42,1). Jesus receives here his program of life: he will be victorious in the messianic fullness of David (cf. Ps 2); he will suffer and, like «the beloved son», will suffer the trial of sacrifice in the manner of Isaac (Gn 22, 2.12) but, unlike the latter, it will not be spared; it will finally be relieved by divine indulgence and, like the suffering servant of Isaiah (42, 1-2), will unshakably bring the right and overcome.

Matthew and Luke take up completely the great objectivity of Mark’s story. They emphasize in their own way this or that detail (the Spirit descended «in bodily form», Luke points out, with some emphasis); they also hint at how the witnesses were involved in the event. Matthew warns that John first rejects immersion, so here we hear the first word of Jesus in this Gospel: Permit it now; for it is fitting that we thus fulfil all righteousness. Then John allowed him to do so» (Mt 3,15). Luke, for his part, emphasizes the presence of the people in the commitment of Jesus and directly associates to what has just happened a long genealogy: this Jesus, son of God, is son of man, son of David, son of Abraham, son of Adam, who, himself «born of God», one can say «son of God». In solidarity with all the people and as part of the tree of every human race, Jesus is baptized in the waters of the Jordan. This is Lucas’ version.

This fourfold representation of the same historical fact allows us to taste the faith and the catechetical interests of the various Christian communities. We also have a fundamental experience of Jesus in our hands. For Jesus all of a sudden, everything was illuminated during Baptism: his deepest identity was revealed and he had a deeper insight into his different relationships: his relationship with God, with his mission or even with John the Baptist, the forerunner of the end. This discernment must have represented for Jesus an exceptional spiritual experience, a true advancement of light and new life.

The Holy Spirit and his «revelation»

The contemporary teachers of Jesus in general had a rather pessimistic view of the Holy Spirit. Since Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, it was said that there was no more Spirit working in history. Even the Second Temple, restored with the money of the Jewish half-Herod, was no longer truly inhabited by the Shekina or the Tabernacle. It was no longer a place where the Spirit could dwell.

In this context, we can understand better the extreme importance of the fact that Jesus was now aware that he was indwelt by the Spirit. This gives him an undeniable prophetic awareness with, moreover, the specific intensity of the eschatological dimension: if the prophets intervene again today on the stage of history, is not the Baptist an authentic example of this? -the past does not necessarily repeat itself, but the end of times willed by God is definitely bursting. In addition to this prophetic tendency, the abode of the Spirit also conceals a religious and priestly dimension: Jesus must have been fully aware that the true temple henceforth coincided with his person. We understand this better by Paul’s words: «Do you not then know that you are a temple of God and that the Holy Spirit dwells in you?» Such a statement, introduced by «don’t you know then?» generally refers to a doctrine previously expounded by the apostle at Corinth. We also find this doctrine in another place, in John: «But he spoke of the sanctuary of his body» (Jn 2,21; Cf. also 1Jn 2,20-24).

In more psychological terms, the experience of the Spirit in baptism represents for Jesus the consciousness of a «revelation» (literally, “unblocking”), that is, of an opening of consciousness. It reveals to the individual himself and lets him see fundamental traits of his person that have always been in himself and therefore can never again lose completely. All relationships suddenly become evident: self-awareness and God-consciousness come together with the awareness of a mission to men. As for the content, in his relationship with God, Jesus knows himself to be the son of the Father; in his relationship with the people, he is the eschatological prophet, the new Moses, expected after the announcement of Elijah and now clearly witnessed by the intervention of the Baptist.

Each revelation is generally preceded by a certain paradoxical quality, a tension between two extremes which, whatever their antinomy, now intervene perfectly reconciled in their maximum polarity. In the case of the baptism of Jesus, emphasize his humility without hesitation, the fact of joining the multitude of «sinners» and marginalized, seems to us the qualitative openness that provoked a sudden broadening of his consciousness. Jesus is truly a «righteous one» when he leaves Galilee to go to the Jordan. Now, that a just man should present himself fully «in solidarity with sinners» and do so for God himself, in obedience to the urgent call of the Baptist, that is surprising and strong in this first public gesture of Jesus. From this attitude new perspectives are opened, starting with Jesus himself. As the rest of the Gospel demonstrates, it turns out that Jesus could never again deny this original quality of paradoxical humility and effective solidarity with publicly discredited sinners (Cfr.  BENOIT STANDAERT, L’espace Jesus – Editions Lessius, Bruxelles 2005).

There is reason to be amazed at this mystery presented to us by today’s liturgy at the end of the cycle of Christmas.

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