Commentary to the Baptism of the Lord – Year B –
He wanted to rise from the abyss
Christians have always connected the traditional New Year’s feast to a motive of their faith. Before the liturgical reform of Vatican council II Jesus’ circumcision was celebrated. It took place, according to Luke, eight days after his birth (Lk 2:21). Then this day was dedicated to Mary, Mother of God. From 1968, January 1 became the “world day of peace” promulgated by Pope Paul VI. The readings reflect a variety of themes: the blessing to begin well the new year (first reading); Mary, model of every mother and disciple (gospel); peace (first reading and the gospel); the divine sonship (second reading); amazement before God’s love (gospel); the name with which God wishes to be identified and invoked (first reading and the gospel).
To bless and blessing are terms that occur often in the Bible. They could be found in almost every page (552 times in the Old Testament, 65 times in the New Testament). From the beginning God blesses his creatures: the living beings that they be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:22), the man and the woman that they rule over all creation (Gen 1:28) and the Sabbath, sign of rest and of joy without end (Gen 2:3).
We need to feel blessed by God and by the brethren. Cursing distances, separates, indicates the refusal, while blessing instead approaches, strengthens the solidarity, and infuses trust and hope. “May the Lord bless you and protect you”: these are the first words that the liturgy utters on this day. May they be impressed in our hearts and that we repeat them to friends and enemies throughout the year.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Teach us, O Lord, to bless who insults us, to bear with who persecutes us, to confront those who slander us.”
First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-11
When Cardinal Bergoglio, was elected Pope, many Roman Catholics were shocked that something so unexpected had occurred.
The writer of this particular poem felt the same kind of shock at an unexpected, but fortuitous turn of events. This poem was written towards the end of the Babylonian Exile and contains the profound joy felt by those who saw God’s work in the international politics of their day.
At the time that the poem was written, the elite of Judah had been in exile for a little more than two generations. The targets of this oracle were the grandchildren of those who had been forcibly exiled when Jerusalem had fallen in 586 BCE. They had kept their identity as Jews telling stories to their children and grandchildren of the glory that had been Jerusalem.
By 538 BCE, however, Babylon had been conquered by the Persians. The Persian king, Cyrus, allowed the peoples whom the Babylonians had exiled to return to their homelands. In some cases, he even funded their return.
Isaiah 40-55, which scholars refer to as Second Isaiah, contains poems celebrating Cyrus. In fact, in Isaiah 45:1, he is even called a “messiah,” meaning a king anointed by God to carry out God’s plans. The author of Second Isaiah firmly holds that the only possible explanation for such an unprecedented turn of events was that Yahweh was in control of all of human history. Many of the poems in this section depict the immanent return of the exiles as a new Exodus which ushers in a new creation.
Chapter 55 recapitulates many themes found in the preceding chapters. Because it is a summary of the earlier poems, it is not as cohesive as other poems in this section. It begins with the imagery of food and drink (verses 1-2) and moves on to the restoration of the Davidic line (3-5). The poem then exhorts the audience to seek God (6-7), ending with a reflection on the unknown of God (8-11). The language is powerful, evidenced by the number of contemporary worship songs that use phrases from this poem.
Lurking behind this text is the reality that many Jews living in Babylon at the time did not choose to return to Jerusalem. Recent archaeological finds provide evidence that by 538, the Jewish community had been integrated into Babylonian society. They had jobs, owned homes, and even lent money to others. Under the Babylonians and Persians, they were free to worship Yahweh, and suffered no coercion to recognize Babylonian gods. Furthermore, the cities within Mesopotamia were the financial, commercial, and cultural centers of that part of the ancient world.
In contrast, Jerusalem was in ruins. Those who returned would first have to stake their claims to land in the area. Many of the fields immediately surrounding Jerusalem had gone uncultivated. There was only a small settlement where the city had once stood, so they would have had to build houses, city walls—in fact, the whole infrastructure. Without the restoration of the monarchy, there were no prestigious jobs for skilled laborers. It was not an attractive prospect for a generation who had no personal experience of the old city.
Much of Isaiah 40-55 is an exhortation to this community to return. The poems promise that God will cause even the desert to bloom if they return. Chapter 55 can be read as the poet’s final exhortation. The poem begins by contrasting real food, with a promise of something better. Real food (which does not satisfy) is akin to any tangible wealth: money, luxury goods, financial security, etc. Verses 1-2 exhort the people to recognize that the tangible wealth that they enjoy in Babylon is nothing compared to the rewards God has in store if they return.
At this point in Israel’s history, many people still hoped for the restoration of the Davidic monarchy, a wish seen in verses 3-5. Throughout the ancient Near East, the reign of an ideal king is associated with fertility and, therefore, an abundance of food. This poem inverts the normal order of king and food. It starts with the image of satiety, and from there infers the restoration of a glorious king.
Verse 6 begins a clear exhortation. “Seek the Lord while he may be found,” implying that if one does not immediately seek God, Yahweh will not be found at some later date, such as after the city has been rebuilt. The time to return in order to enjoy God’s blessings is now.
The poem ends with their experience of God. For this audience, God’s ways are surprising and, ultimately, unknowable. In most other Old Testament texts, the notion of God’s unpredictability is linked to tragic events. Here, however, that unknown is tied to a joyful occasion, which was perhaps even more unpredictable than the original defeat.
The final verse probably refers to God’s covenants with Israel. God has sworn to those covenants, especially the covenant with David, referred to in verse 3. The exiles’ hopes rested in God’s fidelity to that covenant. Israel would be restored, not for their sake, but to show the world that God is in control of history.
Isaiah 55 was written at time when people felt anything was possible. They had not yet experienced the disappointment of a monarchy that is never restored. They had not yet felt the drought in the days of Haggai or the internal strife that stopped the rebuilding of the temple in Ezra. This is the voice that reminds us that, although things do not always turn out like we plan, sometimes, just sometimes, they turn out wildly better.
Gospel: Mark 1:7-11
We have already meditated on the second Sunday of Advent the first verses of this passage (vv. 7-8). They have, in short, the difference between the baptism of John and that of Jesus. The two rituals are apparently the same but completely different in meaning. The first is an external ablution. It indicates the cleansing from sin, the breaking up with a way of life contrary to God’s law. It presupposes the decision not to stain oneself with other transgressions. The second, the baptism with the Holy Spirit, is not an exterior cleansing, but a miracle worked by the Lord in a person. It is the infusion of a gushing water, bearer of fertility and life. It is the replacement of the old heart with a new heart, able to answer “yes” to the proposal of love made by God. The baptism of John was the end of a long and troubled engagement, that of Jesus was the beginning of the wedding feast.
After disclosing the distinct values of the two baptisms, Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, makes no mention of the childhood of Jesus. For the first time he depicts the protagonist of his gospel and does so with a solemn formula, often used by the prophets in their oracles: “In those days …” (Joel 3:2); then he records the name of the village from where he comes, Nazareth in Galilee (v. 9).
He does not say how old he was or to what family he belonged. He is interested only to indicate how, when and where the manifestation the gospel of God in the world began. It all started at the Jordan, a river that flows peacefully in the plains of Jericho, scoring the boundary between the eastern desert and the promised land, where Joshua brought the people out of Egypt. There, all the inhabitants of Judea flocked to be baptized (Mk 1:5-6). One day, Jesus also appeared among the sinners. He came from Galilee, the region inhabited by Israelites believed to be semi-pagans by the religious aristocracy of Jerusalem. He went down into the water along with the sinners to show his desire to share their condition. He was beside them accompanying them in their exodus from slavery to freedom.
In this scene the novelty of the Christian God can be already understood. He is not a distant God, in the sky, who gives instructions and control, who observes who violates them. He becomes one of us, in solidarity with humanity not in sin but in bearing its consequences that always involve, as we all know, also one who did not sin.
We are attached to evil. However, in our prayer rather than asking the Lord to let us avoid it, we implore that he saves us with some miraculous intervention from its tragic consequences: disease, hunger, misery, anguish, family disagreements, wars… God, who is not resigned to palliative solutions, sent his son to destroy the evil at its roots and create a new world without sin, a world in which all his promises will be fulfilled. “May our barns be full, with every kind of provision” (Ps 144:13), “may grain abound throughout the land” (Ps 72:16), “the lowly will eat and be satisfied” (Ps 22:27), “the humble will inherit the land and enjoy peace in abundance” (Ps 37:11). These are not images, but concrete realities that can be actually seen if one trusts Christ and his word.
All the evangelists give importance to the baptism of Jesus because it marked the beginning of his public life. But it is not the incident itself that they want to attract attention to, as the revelation of the sky. In this event, one can capture it. The Synoptic Gospels present it to us with three images well understood by their readers: the opening of the heavens, the dove, the voice from heaven (vv. 10-11).
In Matthew and Luke it seems that all those present have contemplated the heavens opened wide; they have seen the Spirit descending as a dove, and they have heard the voice from heaven. In Mark, however, Jesus is the only recipient of the vision and revelation: “He came out of the water and he saw…” (v. 10). It was the moment of his vocation, one in which the Father has manifested the mission for which he called him.
First of all, He saw the heavens opened.
The picture is now clear for one who knows the Scriptures: the evangelist refers to a famous text from the prophet Isaiah.
In the last centuries before Christ, the people of Israel had the feeling that the sky was closed. Outraged by the sins and unfaithfulness of his people, God had withdrawn into his world. He had stopped sending prophets and seemed to have broken all dialogue with people. The pious Israelites were wondering: when will this distressing silence end? Will the Lord not speak to us again? Will he no longer show his serene face, as in ancient times? They called upon him: “O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay and you are our potter; we are the work of your hands. Do not let your anger go too far or think of our sins forever; do not remember our iniquity forever. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Is 64:7-8; 63:19).
In the baptism of Jesus, the heavens are rent. The rapports between God and man were forever restored. The borders fell and all the fears of God’s punishment are over. Now it is clear how absurd the fears of those who still imagine him angry, vengeful and violent. There’s no more need to be anxious to placate him because he does not reject anyone, does not act as a judge, but he is always on the side of people.
The second object of the “vision” is the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove.
When God assigns someone to a great mission, he always gives him also the strength to carry it out. He infused his spirit on the kings, prophets, judges. The moment he sends his “faithful servant,” he says: “I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations… A broken reed he will not crush, nor will he snuff out the light of the wavering wick” (Is 42:1-4). The sent “servant” becomes conscious of the power of God entering him, says: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken hearts, freedom to those languishing in prison” (Is 61:1).
At the beginning of his public life, Jesus also was filled with the power of the Spirit.
To help us understand the theological message present in this event, the evangelist uses the image of a dove.
There are many biblical references related to this figure. The first could be the creation, at the time when “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen 1:2), as a dove on her nest, some rabbis explained.
The primordial ocean, symbol of chaos and hostile elements, was then dominated by the “divine wind” and on earth life sprang forth. Alighting on Jesus, the Spirit of God came into the world and, with its presence, initiates the new creation.
The second, most immediate recall is the dove of the deluge, let out by Noah in the ark. It returned in the evening with an olive branch (Gen 8:8-12). That was the sign of restored peace between the heavens and the earth, after the destruction of all forms of sin.
For centuries, since the sky closed itself, the spirit of the Lord seemed not to find a place on which to set itself. Like the dove of the deluge, it crossed the sky only to return later to God. Now it descends on Jesus, making his permanent dwelling in him. He is the force that will let him bring to completion the work of salvation. The dove also recalls tenderness and love. Moved by the Spirit, Jesus will always draw himself closer to sinners with the gentleness and kindness of the dove.
Finally, a voice from heaven was heard. The expression is well known: the rabbis employed it to attribute a statement to God. In our passage is intended to define, in the name of the Lord, Jesus’ identity.
Mark wrote after Easter. He must respond to the questions that the disciples ask. Their Master was condemned as a blasphemer by the guarantors of the purity of Israel’s faith. He is apparently a loser, an outcast and abandoned by the Lord. The troubling question is: has God shared this judgment?
To the Christians of his community, Mark refers to the Lord’s judgment with a phrase that alludes to three texts of the Old Testament.
You are my son: the quote is from Ps 2:7. The royal coronation day constituted, for the Davidic king who reigns in Jerusalem, a new birth. It was the moment in which God declared him his son. He conferred on him, his power and his strength. He presented him as his lieutenant to the world.
Jesus’ investiture by the Father took place in the Jordan. There, he was shown to all as the savior, as the human face of God who exists from all eternity. “To what angel did God say—asks the author of the Letter to the Hebrews—You are my son; I have begotten you today? And to what angel did he promise: I shall be a father, and he shall be a son to me?” (Heb 1:5). On the day of his baptism, the Son who, from all eternity, exists “is with the Father” (Jn 1:18); he is “born” as messiah.
In the Semitic culture the word child does not mean only the biological generation. It also implies the affirmation of a similarity. Addressing Jesus as his son, God guarantees to identify with him, in his words, in his works, and especially in his supreme act of love, the gift of life. Those who want to know the Father have only to contemplate this son.
It is significant that God recognizes him as his son at the very moment when Jesus places himself at the side of sinners. His is the only authentic face of the Father. The other faces, above all, that of the judge who sentences, are only the masks that people have applied to him.
The beloved. It refers to the account of the test Abraham underwent. He was asked to offer his son Isaac, the only one, the beloved (Gen 22:2,12,16). By applying this title to Jesus, God invites us not to consider him a king or a prophet like the others. He is, like Isaac, the only one, the beloved.
In whom I am well pleased. We already know this expression because it is in the first verse of today’s reading (Is 42:1). God declares that Jesus is the servant the prophet spoke about. He is the one sent to “establish law and justice” in the world. To fulfill this mission he will offer his life.
The voice from heaven reverses the judgment made by people and denies the Messianic expectations of the people of Israel who could not conceive of a humiliated, beaten and executed Messiah. The way God has fulfilled his promises was for everyone, including the Baptist, a surprise.