The Baptism of the Lord, Perugino, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City State.
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. Matthew 3:13.
As explained in last Sunday’s SundayMassReadings, this event is another Epiphany. Perugino displays this loudly and clearly in the picture above. You have God in heaven, whose voice was heard at Jesus’ baptism, and you have God’s Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus, thus anointing him. Such divine intervention is called an epiphany. It inaugurated Jesus’ vocation to be the Messiah, the Christ, (meaning the Anointed One), and gave him his identity, as the heavenly voice declared Jesus to be “my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The gospel of Mark actually begins with this event, which shows how important it was. Jesus was probably about the age of 30 and presumably by then a jobbing carpenter as Joseph, his stepfather, was. And so he was certainly thrown into a turbulent state of mind and with much confusion at the double revelation, hence his rapid departure into the desert to try and figure it all out: What and who am I? Note that these two questions apply to all the baptized down to today. The second reading shows how baptism, the spiritual circumcision for all Christians, was clearly opened up to all Gentiles very early on. A very confused St. Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit anointing the pagan Roman soldier Cornelius and his household even before they were baptized. This was the absolute sign that the potential chosen people of God could now be anyone, anywhere. It was clear and absolute, and was to precipitate the first major crisis in the new Christian community. All the Christians up to that Cornelius moment were converted Jews, and so it was understandable that they assumed you would have to become Jewish if you wanted to be Christian; this event in the household of the Roman soldier Cornelius stated absolutely that this was not to be the case. Eventually that was accepted, and so anyone could become a follower of Jesus.
The Jewish people had waited a very long time for the Anointed of God (the Messiah) to arrive. Ever since the conquest of the Holy Land by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in about 590 BCE, save for a short period of independence, foreign, pagan, forces had occupied the Holy Land. They were aching for a Messiah who would end this national disgrace and restore the kingdom of David. That hope was to result in the death of Jesus as he was such a colossal disappointment to them. In their eyes, he betrayed the greatest hope they had in the Messiah – political independence. Yes they were delighted at Jesus’ miracles but they wanted much more, concentrating on the more overt prophecies concerning the messiah, for example, that kings would bow before him (Psalm 72). Jesus must have been aware of these strong expectations, but they meant nothing to him, he who said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). In fact, the Jewish people, despite many attempts to attain this treasured independence, had to wait until 1949 to achieve it, with the foundation of the state of Israel. Those other messianic prophecies which talked about a suffering servant (Isaiah 53), always accepted as such by Christians were not – and are not – accepted as such in Jewish thought. So Jesus almost certainly took on this role of Messiah knowing the perils it most certainly would bring. But obedience to the will of God was first and foremost in his thinking; after that was a total trust in God’s protection and loyalty, no matter what happened to him. He put God first, and personal fears and reluctance behind him. And that is the eternal model for all of us. Doing the will of God is never easy, yet if we trust God, have perfect faith in God, know that all will be well in the end, then we too become truly obedient children of God, giving us both our God-given identity and, based on our God-given gifts, our vocation. These we received at our baptism too. Let us ask clarity and strength from God to accept these and act accordingly following his will for each of us. That is the pathway to perfection, happiness and eternal life.
Reflections on the following Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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