Commentary to the BAPTISM OF THE LORD - YEAR C
HE WANTED TO GO UP A CHASM WITH US
The biblical places often have a theological significance. The sea, the mountain, the desert, the Galilee of the nations, Samaria, the land across the lake of Gennesaret... are much more than simple geographical indications (often not even exact).
Luke does not specify the place of Jesus' baptism; John, however, specifies it: "it took place in Bethany, on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptising" (Jn 1:28). Tradition has precisely located the episode in Bethany, the ford through which the people of Israel, led by Joshua, also crossed the river, entering the Promised Land. Jesus' gesture is an explicit reminder of the passage from slavery to freedom and the beginning of a new exodus to the Promised Land.
Beta Barbara has another less obvious but equally significant peculiarity: geologists claim that this is the lowest point on earth (400 m below sea level).
The choice to begin his public life here cannot be a mere coincidence. Jesus, come from the heights of heaven to free men, has descended to the deepest abyss in order to show that he wants the salvation of all, even of the most depraved, even of those whom guilt and sin have dragged into a maelstrom from which no one imagines they can get out. God does not forget or abandon any of his children.
To internalise the message, we will repeat: "The grace of God has appeared, the bearer of salvation for all".
First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-4.6-7
Thus says the Lord: "This is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him, that he may bring justice to the nations. He shall not cry out, nor lift up his voice, nor make it ring in the streets. He will not break the broken reed or quench the faintly burning wick. He shall not faint nor be discouraged until he has established justice in the land, and the distant coasts shall wait for his Law.... I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness, I have held you by the hand, I have formed you and appointed you to be the covenant of the people, the light of the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the captives from the prison, and those who dwell in darkness from the prison".
Who is this servant, a specific individual or a symbolic figure representing the whole people of Israel? Biblical scholars have not yet been able to find a certain answer, which is not so important. What interests us is that the first Christians immediately recognised Jesus in this Servant of the Lord (cf. Acts 8:30-35). How did this identification come about?
It all began on that dramatic Friday, 7 April 30 AD, the day Jesus was executed. The disciples, disoriented, wondered how the life of a good and righteous man could have ended in such a failure. They searched the Scriptures for a solution to the enigma and, in the book of Isaiah, they found the story of this Servant who, after an iniquitous trial, was taken out of the way by the very people he wanted to free. And they understand: God does not save by granting victory, success, dominion, but through defeat, humiliation by the enemies, through the gift of life. What the prophet had said about the Servant of the Lord has been fully realised in Jesus of Nazareth. Today's reading brings us to the beginning of the story of this Servant.
First of all, his election is narrated (v.1). This parable does not always produce positive resonances in us. It speaks of preference in favour of some and rejection of others. We do not like to hear talk of a "chosen" people or of a "chosen" race because these expressions bring back dramatic memories of the madness caused by the illusion of belonging to a "chosen race".
God's choice has nothing to do with exclusivism, particularism or separatism. When God chooses a person or a people, He does so only to entrust them with a mission (always difficult, onerous and not very rewarding) and to ask them to serve others. Unfortunately, it is easy for those who have been chosen by the Lord to interpret their choice according to human criteria and categories, and therefore to arrogate to themselves rights, honours and privileges. The person of whom the first reading speaks to us today, on the other hand, is identified from the outset as the "Servant", the one charged with the task of carrying out a demanding undertaking. Who will give him the strength?
Man "is flesh", i.e. he is clothed in weakness. When the Lord entrusts someone with a task, he gives him the ability to carry it out. To his "Servant", the Lord gives his Spirit, his irresistible strength, as a support.
The first mission entrusted to this "chosen servant" is immediately indicated: he is destined to bring justice to the nations (v. 1), to make "justice" triumph in the world, the "justice of God" which consists in his benevolence, in his salvation.
The following verses (vv. 2-5) tell how the Servant will carry out his mission. He will behave in an unexpected way: he will not impose himself by force, by legal pressure, by the threat of sanctions against those who oppose his provisions. He will not shout, he will not raise his voice as kings do when they proclaim their programmes or extol their deeds in the squares. It will not be intolerant or intransigent towards the weak. It will condemn no one. He will recover those who have erred instead of annihilating and destroying them; he will rebuild with patience and respect all that was being ruined. There will be for him no lost cases, no unrecoverable situations.
He will also be tempted by discouragement in the face of such an arduous task, but he will remain firm and determined to carry it through without shrinking from or being daunted by any obstacle.
Using imagery, the last part of the reading (vv. 6-7) develops the mission of the Servant, who is said to be a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to free the prisoners and the slaves who walk in darkness.
The account of the Servant of the Lord was composed by an anonymous author and later inserted into the book of Isaiah about 500 years before the birth of Jesus. We do not know to whom specifically the prophet is referring; what is certain is that Jesus has fulfilled all that is written in the book of Isaiah: Jesus has been God's faithful Servant. In fact, almost all the verses of this reading are narrated in the Gospels and applied to Jesus (cf. Mt 3:17; 12:18-21; 17:5).
Second Reading: Acts 10:34-38
Then Peter spoke up and said, "Truly I know that God is no respecter of persons, 35and that everyone in every nation who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36He sent his word to the people of Israel, telling them the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee, after the baptism preached by John: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit, filling him with power. He went about doing good and healing all who had fallen into the power of the devil, because God was with him".
The reading narrates a part of Peter's speech in the house of Cornelius of Caesarea. In the early Church there was a much debated issue that divided the community: could pagans be admitted to baptism or not? Peter, at first, was rather reluctant, conditioned as he was by the deep-seated prejudice in Israel that other peoples were unclean.
One day, while he was praying in Jaffa, the Lord revealed to him that no creature of God is unclean and defiled. Before Him, all are equally pure and privileged. All men are called to salvation, because He is the Lord of all (cf. Rom 10:12).
The expression "God has no preference of persons" - used in this passage - appears several times in the New Testament (Rom 2:11; Gal 2:6; 1 Pet 1:17) to denounce the dangerous temptation to project on God our discriminations and to warn against the presumption that the Lord treats people according to the religious confession to which they belong.
Peter's discourse continues with a brief summary of the life of Jesus (vv. 37-38). With the expression "he went about doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil", his mission is summed up. Jesus is committed against every form of evil, against everything that hinders human life. The task was difficult and demanding, but Jesus was able to accomplish it because He was filled with the Spirit of the Lord and because God was with Him.
The text also indicates the place of the manifestation of salvation: it all began in Galilee, when John began to baptise along the Jordan. With these words Peter again defines the period of Jesus' life to which the faith of the believer must refer, that is, his public life "from the baptism of John until the day when Jesus from among us was taken up into heaven" (Acts 1:22).
Gospel: Luke 3,15-16.21-22
As the people were in expectation and all were inwardly wondering whether John might not be the Messiah, 16John addressed them all: "I baptise you with water; but one is coming with more authority than I, and I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 21All the people were baptised, and so was Jesus.
21All the people were being baptised, and Jesus was baptised; and as he was praying, heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven said to him, "You are my beloved Son, my favourite.
The images of God as a faithful ally, a loving Father, a tender Spouse had been set aside, and for centuries the spiritual guides of the people had begun to present the Lord, above all, as a severe and uncompromising legislator. Religion no longer communicated joy, but rather restlessness, fear and anguish. Such a life was unsustainable, something had to change!
These were the reasons for the wait to which the Baptist had to give an answer. When you are living in situations that are at the limits, unbearable, and you ardently desire change, you go after anyone who gives you a glimmer of hope, even if you are not sure that he or she will turn out to be the true liberator.
The people of Israel, who, as Jesus said one day, were a flock without a shepherd (cf. Mk 6:34), were waiting for a guide from the Lord and thought that this guide was the Baptist, the awaited Messiah. John corrects and clarifies: It is not I; one is coming who is stronger than I. He will baptise them with the "Holy Spirit and fire". He holds in his hand the 'rake' that will separate the grain from the chaff; the chaff will be mercilessly burned in 'unquenchable fire' (cf. Lk 3:17). Shortly before, he said that the scythe is already at the root of the trees (cf. Lk 3:9). God's judgement is therefore imminent and will be severe.
The language of the Baptist is harsh and threatening, like that used by some prophets. Malachi has spoken of a day "burning like a furnace, when the arrogant and the wicked will be chaff. On that future day I will burn them up" (Ml 3:19). Isaiah has also issued a similar threat: "A fire is prepared, wide and deep, with plenty of wood, and the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, will set it on fire" (Is 30:33).
We cannot fail to notice the striking contrast between these terrifying images and the gentle and delicate expressions with which, in the first reading, the figure of the "Servant of the Lord" is presented to us. There is no talk of violence, intolerance, aggression, destructive fire, but of patience, of respect for all, of help for those in difficulty, of the recovery of the broken reed, of hope for those who have been reduced to a flickering wick. The Baptist's words reflect the mentality of a people whose spiritual guides had educated them to fear God. Like everyone else, John also believed that injustice and sin had reached its peak and that God's decisive intervention against the wicked was imminent.
He was right: with the coming of Christ there would be no escape from evil. But as to how God would purify the world from sin or what kind of fire he would use... the Baptist was probably deluded. We do not know exactly what was going through his mind; on the other hand, we know very well how Jesus behaved: he did not attack the sinners, he sat down to eat with them; he did not turn away from the lepers; he did not condemn the adulteress, but defended her against all those who judged and despised her; he did not reject the sinner, he let himself be caressed and kissed by her.
With Jesus, the era in which God was imagined as a severe, just and uncompromising ruler is definitively over. He revealed the true face of God, the God who only saves. By his life, he also shone a light on the impressive images used by the Baptist and the prophets, giving us the key to their reading. What they had said was true: God would have sent his fire on earth, but not to destroy his children (even if they were evil) but to burn, to make every form of evil disappear from the heart of each one.
This thought appears in the second part of today's Gospel (vv. 21-22). At first glance, the account of the baptism of Jesus seems identical to that of the other evangelists, but in reality, it presents some different and significant particulars. First of all, unlike the others, Luke does not describe the baptism of Jesus in the first part of today's Gospel (vv. 21-22).
First of all, unlike the others, Luke does not describe the baptism of Jesus, but speaks of it as an event that has already taken place (v. 21). The focus of the story, for the evangelist, is not the baptism itself, but what happens immediately afterwards: the opening of heaven, the descent of the Spirit and, above all, the voice from heaven.
We are at the beginning of public life and Luke wants the Christians of his communities - already baptised - to read the Gospel as addressed expressly to them. He invites them to set out on the journey, to move their steps, still uncertain, in the footsteps of the Master who has been baptised like them, and walks at their side.
Afterwards, Luke alone reports that Jesus was immersed in the waters of the Jordan with all the people, confused with the crowd. Jesus presents himself as the one who stands beside sinners: he does not judge them, he does not shout at them, he does not condemn them, he does not despise them. He shares their condition of slavery and with them he walks the path that leads to freedom.
The third detail that appears only in Luke is the reference to prayer. Jesus receives the Holy Spirit as he prays. The insistence on prayer is one of Luke's characteristics. Today's Gospel presents Jesus for the first time in dialogue with the Father; he will do so twelve more times.Jesus does not pray to give us a good example. He needs, like us, to discover the will of the Father, to receive his light and his strength to do at all times what is pleasing to him. He needs to pray now, at the beginning of his mission; he will also pray before the election of the apostles (cf. Lk 6,12), before his Passion (cf. Lk 22,41) and he will pray especially on the cross (cf. Lk 23,34.46) at the moment of the most difficult trial. He felt the need to pray throughout his life in order to remain faithful to the Father.
After this original introduction, Luke too, like Matthew and Mark, describes the scene after the baptism with three images: the opening of the heavens, the dove and the voice from heaven. He is not recounting prodigious events that actually happened, but employing images with which his readers were very familiar, the meaning of which is not very difficult for us to grasp today, even at the distance of two thousand years.
Let us begin with the opening of the sky.
This is not a meteorological detail (as if an unexpectedly bright ray of sunshine had penetrated the dense cloud cover). If that were the case, Luke would have been referring to a detail that is completely banal and of no importance for our faith. What the evangelist wants to communicate to his readers is something quite different. He is clearly alluding to an Old Testament text, well known to his readers.
In the last centuries before the birth of Christ, the people of Israel had the feeling that the heavens had closed. They thought that God, indignant because of the sins and unfaithfulness of his people, had withdrawn into his divine world, put an end to the sending of prophets and had broken off all dialogue with man. The pious Israelites asked themselves: "When will God's silence end? Will the Lord not speak to us again? Will he no longer show us his serene face as in the days of old? And they called upon him thus: "Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hands. Do not be so irritated; do not always remember our guilt; behold, we are your people... Would that you would rend the heavens and come down!" (Is 64:7-8; 63:9).
Luke does not tell us that a dove descended from heaven (this would be another banal and superfluous detail), but that the Holy Spirit descended "like a dove". The Baptist knows perfectly well that not only manna descended from heaven, but also the destructive water of the flood (cf. Gen 7:12) and the fire and brimstone that turned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes (cf. Gen 29:24). He probably expects the coming of the Spirit as a 'fire' devouring the wicked. The Spirit, on the other hand, alights on Jesus as a 'dove', all tenderness, affection and kindness. Moved by the Spirit, Jesus will always approach sinners with the gentleness and kindness of the dove.
This is an expression that the rabbis used to use when they wanted to introduce an affirmation as coming from God. In our story, it is meant to introduce publicly, in the name of God, who Jesus is.
In order to understand the importance of the message of this voice, it must be borne in mind that this account was composed after the events of the Passover and is intended to respond to the enigma that arose among the disciples about the ignominious death of the Master. Jesus appeared in their eyes as a defeated man, as one rejected and abandoned by God. His enemies - the custodians and guarantors of the purity of the faith of his people - judged him to be a blasphemer. Did God agree with this condemnation?
Luke, then, presents to the Christians in his communities the Lord's judgement of Jesus' condemnation and death with a phrase that refers to three Old Testament texts.
"You are my beloved son" is a quotation from Psalm 2:7. In Semitic culture, the term 'son' does not only indicate biological generation, but also means that the person in question behaves like his father. By presenting Jesus as "his son", God guarantees that we recognise ourselves in him, in his words, in his gestures, in his works, and above all in the supreme gesture of his Love: the gift of his Life. To know the Father, we men need only contemplate this Son.
"My beloved" refers to the story of Abraham, who was ready to offer his only son, Isaac, out of love (cf. Gen 22:2,12,16). Jesus is not a king or a prophet like the others, he is the One. "Whom I prefer" (my favourite). We already know this expression because it is found in the first verse of today's reading (cf. Is 42,1). God declares that Jesus is the 'Servant' of whom the prophet has spoken, the Servant sent to "establish justice and righteousness" in the whole world, who will offer his life to carry out this mission.
The 'voice from heaven' thus disavows the judgement pronounced by men and belies the messianic expectations of the people of Israel. A humiliated, defeated, executed Messiah was inconceivable in the Jewish religious culture of the time. When Peter, in the house of the high priest, swore that he did not know the man, he was telling the truth: he could not recognise the Messiah in him; he was nothing like the saviour of Israel that the rabbis had taught him in the catechism classes.
God's fulfilment of the prophecies was too surprising for everyone, including the Baptist.