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The Baptism of Jesus

It comes as a great surprise to John that Jesus came to him to be baptised and it is a surprise to us too. Matthew alone among the Gospel writers includes the conversation between John and Jesus: “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” suggesting that he, Matthew, was also surprised and felt the need of an explanation. John like all of us needs the baptism of the Holy Spirit but Jesus does not need John’s baptism of repentance. So what can be happening here? Something is certainly happening and it is too important , too true to be simply described in words: Jesus is beginning his earthly ministry fully accepting his role at the outset and showing us this truth by symbolic action. Here we are witnessing a moment of change and it is marked by a ritual, a ceremony, a statement of its occurrence - the question to be asked is what is the message of the rite we behold?

Firstly, John the Baptist is the forerunner of the Messiah:

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord make his paths straight.”

Said Isaiah and so it is it proper, it fulfils all righteousness, that Jesus and John perform these roles’ the herald passing the baton to the one foretold. John knows who Jesus is, in a way we can infer form Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, when “the child leapt in her (Elizabeth’s) womb” that John has always known who Jesus is. And this moment of transition, the inauguration of Jesus’ happens I this extraordinary evet. Jesus illustrates his character, his humility, his humanity, his full identification with his people Israel by accepting the baptism of John.

But that is not all, for immediately “he came up out of the water, the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” This anointing too is about inauguration, it accompanies the baptism reminding us of the “Spirit of God hovering over the waters” at the very beginning of creation. (The rabbis often likened this spirit to a dove brooding and nesting her young.) So the emergence of Jesus to begin his saving work, for which he has come announces anew creation, a clear break with what has gone before.

And thirdly, a voice from heaven said “This is my Son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased” The Father confirms who Jesus is, the Son of God the beloved in a distinct echo of the prophet Isaiah again who wrote:

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights,” and which continues, “I have put my Spirit upon him.” (Isaiah 42:1)

So in this momentary event stepping into the waters of the Jordan, in his baptism, Jesus identifies himself as the one heralded by John, is anointed with the Holy Spirit and is named as the Son of God all as he crosses the threshold to begin the salvation of the world. All three of these identifications leave us in no doubt about who Jesus is, right from the very start, from his first appearance on the stage - and who he is, is something too important too wonderful to be described but which has to be done, seen experienced felt and later recounted.


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