Readings: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
The feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks a transition between the Christmas season, during which we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, and the beginning of Ordinary Time, when we re-experience the saving mission of Jesus by commemorating his public actions and teachings as recorded in the various Gospels. During this year’s A cycle of readings, we will hear Matthew’s Gospel, and so today we are presented with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism. Today’s feast reveals Jesus as God’s obedient Son and servant who has been anointed with God’s powerful Spirit to bring “the good news of peace” to the children of Israel and the nations of the world. In the words of the responsorial psalm, we pray: “The Lord will bless his people with peace” (Ps 29).
In the first reading from Second Isaiah, Israel’s vocation as the Lord’s humble “servant” is to bring forth justice to the nations. In contrast to the grandiose political expectations of nationalistic prophets, Second Isaiah, who is living in exile in Babylon, sees Israel fulfilling its task through a gentle preaching mission:
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, until he establishes justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for his teaching.
No longer can the exiles consider their destiny in narrow nationalistic terms. They must now understand themselves “as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations.” We Christians believe Jesus, the crucified Messiah, is the ultimate fulfillment of this gentle servant figure who will be “a light for the nations.”
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter’s sermon at the baptism of Cornelius also alludes to the universalism implicit in Jesus’ ministry which began with John’s baptism when he was anointed with “the Holy Spirit and power.” Cornelius is the first Gentile convert to Christianity in Acts; he was a devout Roman centurion who was already praying to the God of the Jews and giving alms to them (Acts 10:1-8). As always in Luke-Acts, the initiative for this important stage in the spreading of the Gospel has come from God. In a vision an angel of God tells Cornelius: “Your prayers and almsgiving have ascended as a memorial offering before God. Now send some men to Joppa and summon one Simon who is called Peter” (Acts 10:4). In the meantime, Peter also learns through a vision that God has overridden the Jewish dietary laws by declaring that all foods are clean, so that he goes with Cornelius’ emissaries when they invite him (Acts 10:17-29). When Peter hears of Cornelius’ vision, he affirms all that God has done by beginning his sermon with the words:
I begin to see how true it is that God shows no partiality. Rather, the man of any nation who fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to him. (Acts 10:34)
Although Matthew’s baptism scene is very brief, it is filled with theological significance. In the dialogue between John and Jesus, the Baptist recognizes that Jesus is his superior. Upon seeing Jesus, he exclaims, “I should be baptized by you, yet you come to me!” Jesus replies with his first spoken words in the Gospel: “Give in for now. We must do this if we would fulfill all of God’s demands.” In Matthew, Jesus will be God’s obedient son who brings God’s justice by fulfilling or bringing to completion the will of God expressed in the Law and the prophets (Matt 5:17-20).
God’s approval of Jesus’ obedience in this first public act is evident in the solemn revelatory scene which follows the baptism.
Suddenly the sky opened and he (Jesus) saw the Spirit of God descend like a dove and hover over him. With that, a voice from the heavens said, “This is my beloved Son. My favor rests on him.
The descent of God’s Spirit upon Jesus is his “anointing” as the Messiah, the long-awaited Son of God promised in the Jewish Scriptures (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2). Jesus is not, however, the powerful political and military Messiah expected in some traditions. God’s heavenly voice identifies Jesus with the gentle servant of the first reading from Isaiah: “This is my beloved Son. My favor rests on him.” As we listen to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel throughout this year, we will be fully instructed by this Jesus who says:
Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. (Matt 11:28-30)