First reading: Isaiah 55:1-11. / Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7. / 1 John 5:1-9. / Acts 10:34-38.
Responsorial Psalm: Isaiah 12. / Psalm 28(29):1-4, 9-10
Gospel: Mark 1:7-11.
Link to readings.
With the feast of the Baptism today we make a swift transition from Jesus’ infancy and childhood to the event which, in all four gospels, inaugurates his adult public ministry.
The First Reading, from the first Servant Song in Isaiah (42:1-4, 6-7), is presumably chosen because its opening words seem to find an echo in the divine voice that Jesus hears as he emerges from the water following his baptism by John, “You are my Son, the Beloved, in whom my soul delights”.
The Song records the divine address to a chosen person, presumably a royal figure. Endowed with God’s Spirit, the Servant will “establish true justice” through a gentle, yet persevering encouragement of those who are crushed and downtrodden. Beyond being “a covenant to the people” (Israel), he is to be “a light to the nations”, leading them out of the darkness in which they are imprisoned into the light of God’s day.
This note of a wider mission is picked up in the extract from Peter’s address in the house of Cornelius, appearing as the Second Reading (Acts 10:34-38). Through an earlier vision at Jaffa (Acts 10:9-16), Peter has learned that God does not distinguish between a “holy nation” (Israel) and an “unclean” rest (the Gentiles). Peter has accordingly set aside his former hesitation and gone willingly to the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius. What we hear in the reading is the summary of the Gospel that he gives to the assembled household. Like the four Gospels, the summary here in Acts relates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to that of John. Peter alludes to the events surrounding Jesus’ baptism by John in speaking of God’s “anointing him with the Holy Spirit and with power”. It is rather odd that the extract stops where it does because the text of Acts goes on to tell of how “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word”, convincing Peter and those with him that baptism was not to be denied to these Gentiles who had heard the Gospel and received the Spirit (Acts 10:44-47). In this way, the wider narrative links the baptism of Jesus and his reception of the Spirit with the baptism of all those who subsequently hear the Gospel with faith and likewise receive the Spirit.
The Gospel, Mark 3:13-17, completes the picture. The heart of John’s preaching is to point to Jesus as the coming One who is “more powerful” than he is. Jesus will be more powerful because, whereas John baptises in a literal sense—that is, with water— Jesus will “baptise” with the power and force of God’s Spirit. John’s water baptism prepares a “way” for the Gospel in repentant human hearts. Endowed with the Spirit following his baptism, Jesus will break the grip of Satan upon human lives and reclaim them for the Rule (“Kingdom”) of God.
Mark’s introduction of Jesus is very striking. Jesus does not drop down out of heaven like a god but simply emerges out of the common mass of repentant Israelites approaching John for baptism.
It is only what happens afterwards that sets him apart. Mark’s description is powerful: “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove”. The “tearing apart” of the heavens responds to a cry for rescue expressed in another part of Isaiah (64:1: “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down”). The same expression will recur in the tearing of the curtain of the Temple immediately following Jesus’ death upon the cross (Mark 15:38). In both cases, there is the sense of the barrier between the divine and human world being ripped away.
The descent of the Spirit “like a dove” has been variously explained. In view of the address that follows: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”, there are grounds for thinking that we should hear an echo of the God’s love for Israel expressed in the bridal imagery of the Canticle of Canticles (2:14; 5:2; 6:9). Jesus’ experience of the Spirit is essentially an experience and assurance of the Father’s love. His Spirit-empowered mission will be to rebuild a People of God upon that same assurance. United with Jesus, every baptised person can hear the “Father’s voice” from heaven: “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter; in you, I am well pleased”.
In this way, today’s feast, while primarily about the baptism of Jesus, is also about our baptism as well. That sacrament brings human beings into the divine community of love that is the Trinity. It empowers us, as it empowered him, to reflect that love to the world.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media