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Most Rev Martin Currie
THE BAPTISM OF JESUS YR A (2014)
“THIS IS MY SON; MY FAVOUR RESTS ON HIM” (MT 3:1)
The source of the river Jordan “lies among the perpetual snows of Mount Hermon (The Lebanon); it issues, evaporating into the tropical heat of the Dead Sea, 1290 feet below sea level, the lowest place on the earth’s surface. When it leaves the lake of it is already 676 feet below sea level, and has sixty eight miles as the crow flies, before it reaches the Dead Sea. Its many twists and turns… make its actual length about 187 miles “ (Clemens Kopp, The Holy Places of the Gospel, Edinburgh-London, 1963, p.101). Somewhere along its south course John was baptizing. Traditions vary as to where precisely this activity took place. Today pilgrims are presented with a site near - where the first kibbutz was established at the beginning of the twentieth century. Many Christians renew their baptismal vows there by total immersion. Only adult converts recall when they were baptized. All of us who were baptized as tiny children have no recollection of the event at all. Other people acted on our behalf. We had to grow up before we made a public declaration of our fundamental intent of faith. And even then we always do this with others.
The Public Presentation of Jesus
The Gospel narrative today shows Jesus consciously seeking out John the Baptist for baptism. The Baptist is presented as being in a quandary. Jesus becomes passive in his hands. He was passive as a baby and as a small child, and this passivity is repeated later at the scene of the Transfiguration(Mt17:1-9). The two scenes are so similar. The first is at the beginning of his public ministry, his being declared God’s Son; the second continues the theme, showing the implications of being God’s Son. In both cases, his initiative was to go to the place, and then he seemed to be totally passive. He came from Galilee (Mt 3:13) for the baptism and he led them up to a high mountain for the transfiguration (Mt 17:1ff.). Elsewhere he always takes the initiative, until the passion. Then he is arrested and bound and led away, entirely in the hands of others. Afterwards his heavenly Father takes over. Heaven declares: This is my Beloved Son. This same declaration comes at the Transfiguration. And after the final suffering and his burial God raised him up.
Jesus foreshadowed what life would be like for believers. He was obediently passive in the hands of his Father and then made public his total commitment. He was passive when the Spirit led him into the desert to be put to the test (Mk 1:12). He would be the Suffering Servant, the Man for Others. Obedience to the divine voice is the way to live, and the Gospel narrative unfolds the story for us.
A Declaration of Intent
The Gospel account of the baptism of Jesus shows us what baptism did and did not mean for him. The exchange with the Baptist shows what could not have been the case: Jesus was no sinner. But he identified with them. His mission was not his own idea: he was sent by his Father.
The biblical references behind today’s scene are to the beginning of creation. God had created the world- he had ordered creation the way it should be. His spirit hovering over the waters directed the way of the world: order followed chaos. In this context humanity was created, and humanity subsequently took the wrong direction. Whereas the chaos of nature had been regulated humanity had not been. The flood and Noah’s ark and a dove carried on the biblical narrative of human existence. Then finally Jesus encountered John the Baptist- and the restoration began. What God wants Jesus to do is articulated here. Ps 2:7 and Is 42: are applied to him and present him the Son of God and the Suffering Messiah of God. The future programme of his very short life is sketched here- his vocation, we might say, written, of course long after his earthly historical life had ended. But according to the evangelist all of it had been adumbrated at the beginning. We are presented with the way it would unfold.
Keeping with the thought of being passive we find that Jesus asked of his disciples for their willingness to accept his disposition here. The ambitious sons of Zebedee who wanted a place of glory in his kingdom were asked if they would be ready to accept the baptism with which he and they would be baptized (Mk 10:38). He himself had longed for his passion to be over which he called a baptism ( 12:50). He told Peter that when Peter would be old he would be bound and taken where he would not want to go- signifying his death ( 21:13). This was after making him the chief shepherd of the flock. This same Peter we find bringing Cornelius and with him the gentiles into the Church in today’s second reading (Acts 10:34-38)- referring again to the baptism of John the Baptist. And baptising gentiles would introduce them to the way of the Cross.
I suppose for most of us the cross is accepting the entailments of our choices. When we commit ourselves to a big life determining choice we accept in principle all that goes with it. In the exchange of the marriage vows it included ‘for better or for worse’. Though the wording can change there too. After all The General Synod of the Church of England has decided not to mention the devil in the baptismal rite in future. The problems of finding suitable language for liturgy is as difficult as avoiding political correctness. But the Gospel narratives provide a realism that reflects the way life is. The detail of the life of Jesus indicates what he could and could not choose, what was available for free choice and what was not. We depend on other people so much and all the time. We experience their presence and we know loneliness. Our faith is sustained by the presence of others who share it. Our intent is made public when we share it with them- the sacraments are of great significance for this public attestation of values that are about love made manifest, renewing our baptismal vows.
The Ordinary Time of the Year until Lent begins after today’s celebration. Liturgically behind us we have the hidden years of Jesus. In front of us we can look forward to spring and that growth in nature that will come with snowdrops and daffodils- they too can be symbols of what we ourselves would like to be as human beings- following the way of Our Lord towards the splendour of Easter. Amen.
Rev Richard J.Taylor
Spiritual Advisor, International