On the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the Church begins to walk with Him through His adult life, even though we have just celebrated His Nativity. This is so that we can walk with Him, becoming more like Him in the course of the year.
The Baptism of Jesus makes manifest a number of themes: first of all, for today’s liturgy, the Church has chosen one of the ancient Suffering Servant songs from Isaiah. God announces that his servant is specifically “my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit.” These lines are vital to today’s Gospel, which concludes with the same words. The prophecy has been fulfilled in this man Jesus of Nazareth, who has been baptized. God’s spirit appears over the head of this man, in the Gospel from Matthew.
There is a sublime gentleness to the way that this servant, who has the Spirit of God, will work: “not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street, a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench.” And the work of the servant? To establish justice upon the earth.
Justice is one of the virtues. It recognizes the supreme dignity of the human person above all other things in nature. Justice allows a human being the freedom to enjoy his rights, including that of the freedom to seek the highest happiness. In Old Testament terms, justice means that God’s justice is present as He remembers His promises and faithfully brings about what He promised. In the New Testament, God brings about the holiness of man before God through Jesus Christ. This is the work of the Servant.
When Peter speaks in the Second Reading, he explains that these things happened in Jesus. He was the one who “went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” This is the peace spoken of in the Psalm. It is the Lord who brings peace. So then: “Give to the Lord the glory due his name.”
He has done what He said that He would do. In fact, in Jesus He has been seen “to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” (First Reading) In fact by doing these things, in Peter’s words, Jesus has shown Himself to be “Lord of all,” just like God is Lord of all in the Psalm.
Yet the Lord of all, humbly goes down into the waters of the Jordan, like any of the faithful. The Jordan was where His namesake Joshua led the people into the Promised Land all those years before. Jesus made the waters of baptism holy rather than the other way around. So much so that the “the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” Baptism similarly opens the heavens for us too and we are made sons of God by His grace.
Jesus is announced as the one who is the beloved Son. Thus the image of the Servant gains an additional meaning namely that of being the Divine Son and it would come to be understood in the Tradition as the Divine filiation that eternally takes place in God where the Son returns everything to the Divine Father. Service and filiation have several overlapping meanings, such that this even comes to be true for us, in a certain way, as we return all of our lives to the Divine Father through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.
The Baptism of the Lord also makes manifests the Divine Trinity. The Trinity does not “come apart” as the Incarnate Son makes his way to the Cross. The eternal interrelation of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit is seen in our history through the face of Jesus of Nazareth as He goes about doing good and freeing people from darkness. His humanity becomes the instrument of our salvation, just as Joshua had been so many times for the people of Israel. And we too are in a promised land of sorts where we can live with the goodness of God present in the Church as we serve Him and give Him the honor that is due His name.
Of course, we do not remain standing in the Jordan any more than Jesus did. We carry the goodness of God into the market place, into the homes of the sick and of those in darkness. We do not “break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick” because that was not His way.
His way is something quite different than we might imagine. We might even end up on the Cross.
*Image: The Baptism of Christ by Esteban Murillo, 1655 [Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin]