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The Baptism Of The Lord, Year C

By Father Donald Dilger
Father Donald Dilger


Is 40:1-5, 9-11; Ps 104:1b-2, 3-4, 24-25, 27-28, 29-30; Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22 

The first reading is the opening of that part of Isaiah called the Book of Consolation. The setting is about 540 B.C. The people of Israel have been in exile in the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and later in the Persian Empire, from at least 586 B.C. Babylon, the destroyer of Jerusalem and the temple, is in decline. Cyrus the Great of Persia is on the march with his armies. The prophet whom we call Second Isaiah comes onto the scene. Not only is he a deeply religious theologian, but also a keen observer of political events. The policy of Cyrus, a pious heathen, was to let exiled peoples return to their homeland and rebuild their cities and especially their temples. The longing of God’s people for their freedom is expressed in Psalm 137:1, “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion (Jerusalem). On the willows there we hung up our harps.” When Cyrus conquered Babylon, the dream of return became closer.

Second Isaiah has an answer to their grief — the Book of Consolation, chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah. He begins, “Be comforted! Be consoled, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, ‘Your time of service (slavery, exile) is ended.’” Soon they would be going home. In poetic metaphors the prophet speaks of preparing an interstate highway over mountains and through deserts to return to the Land of Promise. All four gospels will use the metaphors of this passage, in one form or another, to describe the mission of John the Baptizer five centuries later. All four gospels also connect this passage with John’s baptism of preparation (repentance) for the advent of the Messiah. That is why this passage of Isaiah was selected as the first reading for Jesus’ baptism by the Baptizer. It is possible that Mark derived the title of his catechism (Gospel of Mark) from verse 9 of this passage, “O Zion, (Jerusalem), announcer of Good News.” Second Isaiah’s theme of consolation becomes emotionally intense as he describes the tenderness of the mighty Lord God, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will gather the lambs in his arms, carry them close to his heart, and gently lead the pregnant ewes.”

Although it is not clear why parts of Psalm 104 were selected as the Responsorial Psalm, the assemblers of our liturgical texts may have seen a connection with Jesus’ baptism in these words, “You have spread out the heavens like a tent-cloth.” Why these words? In Luke’s baptism narrative he (and Matthew) use the Greek verb anoigo which can mean not only to open but to spread out. (Not quite convincing, but at least an attempt to fit parts of Psalm 104 with the baptismal narrative of Luke.) The second reading is from the Letter to Titus. Titus was a missionary associate of St. Paul. What makes this selection proper for the liturgy of Jesus’ baptism?

Two possibilities. First, if the baptism of Jesus is the beginning of his saving activity to be completed on the cross, then these words fit the occasion, “Jesus . . . who gave himself up for us . . . to cleanse for himself a people as his own . . . .” Secondly, there is a reference to either Jesus’ baptism or our baptism, or both, in the words, “He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewed us by the Holy Spirit, etc.”

There are three gospel versions of the baptism of Jesus — Mark, Matthew, Luke. Here we enter some peculiar territory. Mark is the earliest version, and the simplest. Once the pioneer had written the story, those who came after him felt free to change it. The peculiarity of the versions is in the changes, ending up with no baptism of Jesus in John. So here goes. Now the basic elements in Mark. The Baptizer announces what he is doing — baptizing with water, and proclaiming that a “mightier one than I” is en route. Jesus is one of many baptized by John on that occasion, but with a difference. In Mark’s Greek the heavens (the skies) are ripped open and the Spirit descends upon Jesus “in bodily form like a dove.” There is a voice from the sky directed only to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased. Other than the explanations needed for the “bodily form like a dove,” and the Old Testament origin of the words of the voice, all else is simple. But not for Matthew and Luke. They were obviously uncomfortable with the self-proclaimed #2 baptizing the Mightier One. Matthew’s solution: The Baptizer objects to this situation, and there is a command from Jesus, “Just do it!” Luke’s solution: as he arranged the material of his gospel, the Baptizer has been put into prison before Jesus arrives at the Jordan. In this way Luke avoids saying that the lesser baptized the greater. The Gospel of John gets even more drastic. Jesus is not baptized at all, but the Baptizer sees the Spirit “descending as a dove and remaining on Jesus.”

Besides avoiding a direct statement that the Baptizer baptized Jesus, Luke makes a few other changes. Only in Luke’s gospel was Jesus praying as the heavens were opened. The addition of prayer is a typical Lucan touch throughout his gospel and Acts. In Luke, Mark’s “Spirit” is changed to “Holy Spirit.” Such are the changes Luke made in the original story. An important question must be asked, “Why was Jesus baptized at all?” We wash or bathe to remove dirt. In the spiritual realm — to remove sin, whether original and actual for adults or original even for children. But Jesus is the eminently sinless one. An acceptable theological answer is this, that Jesus began at his baptism what he would complete on the cross — to “take away the sins of the world.”  Even though the Gospel of John does not explicitly state that Jesus underwent baptism, it is at last implied. Therefore the Gospel of John may have the answer we seek, when the Baptizer, only in John’s gospel, proclaims, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Yes, already at his baptism, to be completed at his death. With this in mind, we recall  today’s second reading, “He saved us through the bath (his own baptism) of rebirth . . . .”