Reflection on the Baptism of the Lord
With the Baptism of Jesus, we end our celebration of the Christmas season. Soon the lights and the trees will be gone from our grounds and courtyard, from the hallways and common spaces. The Christmas sweaters and sweatshirts will be folded away. The star on the academy building will once again be dark. We walk into the drab gray dullness of winter as we move back into Ordinary Time. But Ordinary Time in these days is certainly not ordinary.
We continue have multiple COVID deaths each minute. Our medical workers fear the expectation of another surge coming: more hospitalizations, more deaths, more endless exhaustion in the care of sick people. The health care system moves close to collapse. We have a COVID vaccine, but distribution has been far slower than promised and buy-in spotty. We in the U.S. have a vaccine — but what of the poor of the world. Given proprietary patent rights and for-profit pharmaceutical companies, we seem out to make COVID a disease of the poor.
We have 10 days before the inauguration and a president who is out of control and escalating, inciting civil unrest and violence, promising that the havoc he has wrought will last for years. We have congress persons still unable to set aside their need for power and control for the common good of the country and its citizens.
Trauma to families and to the poor is increasing; as are the lines at food banks. Americans are hungry — people who have never faced food insecurity now trapped with the poor of the world. Parents fear for their ability to feed their children and pay their rent. Response from the current administration continues to be inadequate.
Violence is so frequent that it is creeping into the new normal — no longer surprising. And racism continues as part of normal within American systems. It’s a bleak picture of ordinary time. Pain, suffering, fear, despair.
When I was a kid I believed, each year, that Christmas would be magical — that Christmas would make everything around me ok — everything in our world ok. Heal it. Each Christmas night I would go to bed sad. The world was the same world I had woken up to — despite celebration and wonderful presents — and even Santa Claus coming.
For most of the world’s people, despite valiant attempts to make the holidays sparkle, Christmas this year has not been magical, and miracles have been in short supply. So, did it make any difference? Did the birth of a baby in a stable in Bethlehem on a star-lit night make any difference? Today’s readings, I think, give us a way to see into an answer to that.
The first reading is from Second Isaiah — an unnamed prophet whose beautiful words are found in the later chapters of the book of Isaiah. He is writing at a tumultuous time in Jewish history. Cyrus, the Persian king, has conquered Babylonia and established the Persian Empire. Second Isaiah heralds Cyrus as the unlikely one who will bring forth the will of God, the end of nearly 70 years of the Babylonian exile. And, as it turned out, it was Cyrus who eventually, and peacefully, ended the exile and allowed Jews to return home.
Rabbi Abraham Hershel writes that the message of Second Isaiah “is on no age. It is prophecy tempered with human tears, mixed with a joy that heals all scars, clearing a way for understanding the future in spite of the present.” “No words,“ he writes, “have ever gone further in offering comfort when the sick world cries.” It is a message of hope for today — as the sick world cries. It’s a promise to a world in pandemic that just as rain and snow fall and water the earth, the WORD of God will not return to the heavens until it has brought forth the will, the work, the dream of God. Jesus, the Word of God — Emmanuel — God with us. The Word and the Work of God. We. Like the Jewish people in exile, we hold tenaciously onto that promise.
And then, in the Gospel of Mark, the adult Jesus — the Word — is seen coming to the Jordan, standing in the flowing river, reminiscent of the primordial waters of creation, to be baptized by John. It’s the beginning of Mark’s Gospel — and, for Mark, and perhaps for us, where the Good News starts. There is no baby in a manger for Mark. He begins his Gospel with what we tend to take as benign, harmless words: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And immediately in comes John and then Jesus seeking baptism. But those words, “the beginning of the Good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” are political words, inflammatory words, not at all benign — and early Christians would have recognized that. And so would the Romans.
Mark uses the Greek word “euangrlion,” which we translate as “good news.” It was a term used by the Roman military to describe a victory in battle — it was sent out by Roman messengers, evangelists, as the good news of the empire whose emperor was seen as the son of god.
They are words to let us know that this good news is dangerous. Dangerous, not easy. When Mark wrote the first Gospel, Peter and Paul had already been executed. For Mark, friends — dead at the hands of the Romans. It’s a bit like George Floyd is murdered by “ power,” and you run out in the street chanting “Black Lives Matter.” And that’s good news — that Black lives matter — dangerous, but good news still. That’s what Mark did.
The Baptism of Jesus is dangerous. What follows in the Gospel is dangerous. But it is good news. God cares. We matter. Jesus’ baptism is a different kind of Epiphany — no kings or gold or frankincense or myrrh — but the voice of God from the clouds, “You are my Beloved Son. In you I am pleased.” Like God at dawn of the creation billions of years ago — that first incarnation — looking over the emerging universe seeing that it was good. And proclaiming it good.
Robert Barron calls the Baptism of Jesus an embarrassment. John’s is a baptism of repentance. And here is Jesus, recognized by the early Christians as the beloved of God, the Son, God with us, the sinless and blameless lamb. And he is seeking John’s baptism of repentance. Embarrassing. And it is after that baptism, God declares Godself to be well pleased. God is somehow pleased with that embarrassment. God so completely wishes to identify with human persons. With human brokenness. With human sinfulness. With human need. So completely that Jesus enters a baptism of repentance — standing with all of us in every age. And that is always dangerous. And his followers stand, too, with each other — and that’s dangerous.
Jesus moves from the river to the desert, through the countryside and on to Calvary. Encountering the hurt and the broken, sinners and the poor. Healing, freeing, giving hope, wrapping in compassion and mercy. In Jesus, God confronts the realities of the world, us as we are, including the pandemic, including racism and the antics of our president — all the things that always unravel and threaten life. The realities that bring humanity, over and over again to the brink of despair and destruction, provoking fear and giving rise to tyranny (Stephen Grunow). Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of that confrontation. Jesus is still the confrontation of God.
And so, the words of God through Isaiah echo in our hearts, lift our hearts, as we follow Jesus into the danger and uncertainty: For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, … “so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my well, achieving the end for which I sent it.”