Who is this child born in Bethlehem? The manifestation of his divinity is known as an epiphany. On Friday, the sixth of January, we recall the first of three epiphanies. The Wise Men coming from the east brought gold to proclaim Jesus as king, frankincense to represent his priesthood, and myrrh which is used for the anointing of a dead body anticipated his resurrection. The second epiphany is in this Sunday’s Gospel, the revelation of Jesus as the beloved Son of God after his Baptism in the Jordan river. The third revelation would be the miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, the first sign or miracle of Jesus through which his glory was revealed and the disciples believed in him.
In John’s Gospel there is no account of the Baptism of Jesus. Matthew, Mark and Luke wrote of the Baptism of Jesus, the coming of the Spirit and the voice from heaven identifying Jesus as the Beloved Son. For our reflection this week we will concentrate on something which is only in Matthew’s Gospel, the dialogue between John and Jesus.
Seeing Jesus entering the water, John tried to stop him. “It is I who need Baptism from you, and yet you come to me.”
Jesus replied, “Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands”. What did he mean by righteousness?
John had attracted great crowds of people who were anxious to turn a new leaf by confessing their sins. The Baptist then dipped them one by one in the flowing water of the Jordan as a symbol of their new life. In those days, the Jewish ablutions used still water, kept in tanks or large jars, but the Baptist chose flowing water as a symbol of a new way of living.
The Jewish religion at the time was very much based on the perfect observance of hundreds of laws. This was the only way to righteousness, being fully at rights before God. Later, in his public ministry, Jesus had several encounters with the legal experts about the strict legalism which squeezed the joy out of religion. When religion is dominated by the concept of a strict, exacting God, it can drive people to an obsessive guilt complex, especially with anything to do with sexual imagination or thought. God is then feared but not loved: and religion strives to be very correct, but is also very cold. St Paul admitted that in his time as a Pharisee, he strove for perfection but could never observe all the laws. Coming to know Jesus Christ released him.
The crushed reed and smouldering flame
To understand what Jesus meant by righteousness, the best commentary is in today’s First Reading, Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7. Matthew, as he wrote, surely had his eye on this text. Jesus is identified as the chosen servant of God, endowed with the Spirit and bringing true justice to the nations. He did not stand aloof from sinners but came close to them. He came not to condemn but to heal and give hope. He did not stand aloof on the bank of the river but, although sinless, he entered the river of human frailty and submitted to the ritual washing given by the Baptist. Sinners would find that he would sit with them, listen to them and eat with them, an act that scandalised the strict legalists. He would not cast stones at the woman condemned for adultery but he told her to go and sin no more. His gentleness is beautifully described by Isaiah.
“He does not break the crushed reed
Nor quench the wavering flame.”
To put my eyes into your eyes
This Christian approach is exemplified in the life of Pope St John XXIII. He was visiting Regina Caeli prison in Rome, but when he saw the line of broken humanity in front of him, he felt a large lump in his throat and was unable to deliver his prepared speech. Eventually he recovered and spoke from the heart.
“Men,” he began, “I have come here today to put my eyes into your eyes.” He had come to understand rather than condemn. He told them of a member of his extended family who was in jail. It had an extraordinary effect on the prisoners. Pope John died not too long after that. On a television programme about him, one of the prisoners said that while he was still behind bars, he had been interiorly liberated that day.
The public ministry of Jesus
The day of the Baptism of Jesus marked the beginning of his public mission. He began by entering the flowing water of the Jordan. It expressed his solidarity with human experiences. He would be a victim of misunderstanding, opposition and eventually persecution unto death. But he always witnessed to the power of goodness and love from within the waters of pain and pressure. He came to bind up the bruised reed and to fan the wavering flame into a consuming fire. The Baptist predicted that while he baptised with water, the one coming after him would baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Like Pope John, he looked through the eyes of sinners seeking mercy, hope and a new life. “Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life” (Pope Francis).
We were baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
All we have to do is to let God be God: and to be aware of:
– the Father’s love for us as his beloved children
– the Son’s solidarity with us by entering the flowing water of life
– the Spirit’s desire to set our hearts aflame with the fire of divine love.
Fr Silvester O’Flynn’s book, Gospel Reflections and Prayers is available to purchase at Columba Books.