"And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you, I am well pleased.’"
Today marks the end of the Christmas season; with the baptism, the years of the Lord’s hidden life have come to a close and Jesus takes up his public ministry. The time of Israel’s expectation has been fulfilled. The long-awaited Messiah has appeared. The whole time of the preparation of the Old Testament, of Israel’s election, the covenant, and the mission entrusted to it, converges here on this one figure, in this one very concrete time and place in human history. With the eyes of Easter, we can see how all the fragmentary images presented in the Old Testament find their unity and unveil their meaning precisely here in Jesus.
For thirty years Jesus has been immersed in the beliefs, customs, and traditions of Israel and its covenant relationship with the God who chose them and formed them as his people; and in and through them matured in the mission that he and the Father had decided upon in eternity. Jesus’ baptism by John shows that Jesus emerges from the midst of this history.
When Jesus descends into the river, he shows himself in solidarity with that part of Israel that heeded the voice of God proclaimed through John, with all who confessed their guilt and were willing to dive into the water of judgment and salvation, who acknowledged themselves as sinners and ready to face the divine judgment on their sin and receive the salvation that can only come from God. Along with them, Jesus, too, shows himself obedient to the voice of God through John, ready to be called by this voice out of the hidden life and to take up his public life at this moment.
His humble submission to being submerged in the waters is fulfilled immediately by the affirmation of the voice from above. In this obedient act the Israel that has been made ready for God and the God who has entered into the covenant with Israel come together as one; finally, in a manner unforeseen by Israel and that it was in no way able to accomplish on its own. Upon him alone the Spirit descends in bodily form as a dove. He is the one designated as the chosen one, and on him, the Spirit will remain as his abiding inspiration.
The voice from heaven confirms and interprets this event: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Here is the one to save Israel. Here is the fulfillment of the image of the mysterious Servant of the Lord prophesied in the first reading from Isaiah, the obedient one who was to become a ransom for the people: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am well pleased. Upon him I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations.”
Through his humble submission to baptism, Jesus becomes the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire, through whose mouth come words of ‘spirit and life’ (Jn 6:63). At the same time, the image of the Holy Spirit and fire points us forward to the completion of his mission: he will become one who baptizes in fire by way of the cross on which he will be burnt as a holocaust, as the lamb of God, in whom sin and death will be consumed. His whole mission points to this event. As he says later: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled. I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished.” In the baptism, Jesus appears as God’s judgment on Israel and on the world. He is God’s definitive appearance in his saving power.
As God’s beloved Son, Jesus’ mission is qualitatively different from that of the prophets who preceded him. Not only is his mission unique, but he himself is unique. In the case of the prophets, no matter how generously they handed themselves over to their mission, it was always at least relatively possible to distinguish their mission from their person; but in Jesus no such distinction between person and mission is possible. There is no before and after in terms of awareness of his mission, no sense that it is something added on to an identity that preexisted it, no time in which he acts outside of his mission. Rather, everything points to his being identical with his mission. Throughout the Gospels, he appears as nothing other than the one whom God has sent, and it is impossible to imagine him otherwise. He is the one of whom Paul says that God sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin and condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.” (Rom 8:3-4). His mission and his being are identical.
In today’s Gospel John the Baptist himself witnesses to this new order, when he says, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” In the Gospel of John, we read “There was a man sent from God whose name was John…He was not the light but came to bear witness to the light.” Of this light, he says that God sent his Son “in order that the world might be saved through him.” At work here is something more radical than the mere appointment of a messenger or representative or even the choosing of a prophet (even prophets chosen “from the womb”, like Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and Paul.) Later in John, Jesus will say of himself (“I proceeded and came forth from God”). The sending of Jesus by God, therefore, is rooted in this prior “proceeding” from God, which points us back into his eternal life with God, where he was always and had always been, “with” God. Jesus is God’s Word sent to his people. He is the Word that was in the beginning, that was with God and that was God. His earthly mission is nothing other than the expression of his eternal procession from the Father.
In Jesus, the heavens have been opened, here, at the baptism, through his manifestation as God’s beloved Son, and then throughout his public ministry by his unfailing fidelity to his mission. Guided by the Father through the Spirit, in all that he said and did, he never deviated from his Father’s will. In all his interactions with others, in his preaching, his prayer, his miracles, his formation of his disciples, right on to his “hour”, his passion, death and resurrection, his mind, intelligence, and free will were wholly oriented to making the One who sent him, known, believed, and honored. In him, we have access to the world of God, and therefore to his universal design for all mankind, which is to be “in Christ”.
By his death and resurrection, we are now “in Christ”. And thanks to his self-gift, an acting area has been opened up within himself in which the whole of mankind is granted the opportunity to share in his mission, and in that, become conformed to the idea that God has of each. Blessed and destined for holiness from the foundation of the world, we are for the first time able to become what we are. Not simply according to the fulfillment of our natural endowments, but according to the particular meaning and purpose for which we have been created. In Christ, man is no longer condemned to ceaselessly circle round and round in the vanity of his own unfulfillable transcendence. Rather the world of God has been opened up to him. We now have the opportunity to discover God and ourselves in a way hitherto impossible.
What this means for us then, as followers of Christ, is that we are to “act” in the acting area that has been opened, that is, in Christ, in such a way as to bring our innate nonidentity between our being and our mission into an ever-closer approximation to the perfect identity that Christ enjoys in himself. In other words, we are to bring our own “self” more and more in line with our God-given mission and to discover in this mission our own identity, both personal and social.
For us, as monks, this assimilation comes about through our prayer, our patient slow attentiveness to God’s living Word in lectio divina, our participation in the Liturgy, especially the Eucharist, the service of our work, in a word, in the whole of the monastic conversatio, and the particularity of our charism. This is our acting area, in Christ. Losing ourselves in these, in the blessedness of those who are poor in spirit, we undertake a journey of discovery: of God, by our obedience, of our brothers and all those we encounter, by our service to them, and of ourselves, because it is only in such service and obedience that we truly encounter ourselves.
It is the Lord who has proposed this task to us, let us call upon him to infuse us with his same perfect readiness to carry it out.
The Baptism of Christ by Perugino. This morning' s homily by Father Timothy.