The Baptism of the Lord

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Have you ever wondered why the Gospel narratives of the ministry of Jesus begin with the episode of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the River Jordan, which may seem to be such a trivial incident? Or why Pope John XXIII made the Baptism of Jesus the first Feast of the Ordinary Year of the Church, immediately after the Solemnity of Epiphany, which may also seem to be surprising? Things became clearer to me, when I noticed that the memorial in the Canon of the Mass in the Syro-Malankara rite, calls to mind not just the death and resurrection of Jesus, as in the Latin rite, but even his baptism in the River Jordan. For in the early church then, as reflected especially in the oriental rites now, the Baptism of Jesus was not just one more story in his life, - but it is a mystery, on par with the great mysteries of his Incarnation and our Redemption (i.e. his death and resurrection), - in fact connecting them both in a meaningful salvific whole.

Jesus was now filled with the Spirit (Luke 4:1)

As I re-read the Gospel story and mystery of the Baptism of Jesus, I saw in it the capture of a vision and the beginning of a mission, - a turning point, so to say, in the life of Jesus 'as man', for the gospels tell us almost nothing about Jesus before that event. In fact people would later on say in astonishment, "How can he do all this? Where did he get such wisdom and the power to work these miracles? Isn't he the carpenter, the son of Mary?" (Mk 6:2,3). For in the eyes of his countrymen Jesus was like anybody else - there was nothing to distinguish him from the rest of the village. So something did happen to him in the Jordan. It couldn't be that Jesus came there simply to be baptized by John the Baptist, for John was on the contrary preparing the people for Jesus through a 'baptism of repentance'. But Jesus went through this baptism, which he obviously did not need, to publicly identify himself with sinful humanity, becoming one like us by taking upon himself all our weaknesses.

It was after this act of emptying himself of his glory that the heavens were opened and the real Baptism took place from above to prepare Jesus for the people. Heaven opened before him and he saw the Spirit coming down upon him and He heard the Father speak to him, "You are my own dear Son, and I am pleased with you" (Mk 1:10,11; Lk 3:21,22). In other words, he had a vision of his messianic task and an experience of special anointing for it. For he was now filled with the Holy Spirit, receiving the wisdom to know what to do and the power to enable him to do it (Lk 4:1). He was now aware that he had received the authority from the Father to preach the Good News of Salvation and the power of the Holy Spirit to heal the sick and deliver the oppressed - and all could see the difference.

His very reading of the Scriptures in the synagogue made them gaze at him in amazement. His teaching was strikingly new in content and given with an unusual authority. All the sick were healed by a mere word or touch. Those possessed by Satan were allergic to and afraid of his very presence. Peter found it hard to believe that a man could command the seas and the winds to obey him. He would later reveal the source of such incredible authority and power to Cornelius: "God had anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the power of the Holy Spirit and that is why Jesus went about doing good and healing everyone who was under the power of the devil" (Acts 10:38). But this experience was meant to be an example to and a channel for his apostles and his disciples down the ages.

And the believers were all filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4)

For what happened to Jesus at his Baptism happened in a certain degree to the Apostles at Pentecost. Before that day they were all so slow to understand the teachings of Jesus, so reluctant to pray with him, whether at Tabor or in Gethsemane, so jealous of one another, so ambitious for power and prestige, so suspicious even of Jesus, even ready to use violence to save their own skin, - and that in spite of being with Jesus for three years, listening to his captivating words and witnessing to his marvelous deeds. But just head knowledge or human talent would not change them or their situation. For that they would have to wait, Jesus impressed upon them, to receive power not from below but, as he himself did, from above, a power that was not something but someone, - the Holy Spirit. After nine days of waiting together with Mary in prayer, the promise of the Father was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, as the Spirit came upon them, like a mighty wind rushing from heaven and filling the house, and as tongues of fire resting on each one of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4)

And immediately after their Pentecostal experience, they threw open the closed doors of the upper room where they were hiding out of fear and ventured into the streets of Jerusalem praising God unabashedly. That same terror stricken Peter who denied Jesus when confronted by a mere maidservant now dared to proclaim him boldly to the whole of Israel as the only Savior and Lord, with startling results. That same doubting Peter who sank like a rock could now heal the lame man with a faith as strong as a rock in the power of the Spirit within him. No threats or punishment would stop him from speaking about what he had seen in and heard from Jesus, even counting it a joy to suffer for him. And under his leadership the first Christians were one in heart and mind, even pooling all their resources together so that there was no needy person among them (Acts 4:32).

So you too must be filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18)

What happened to Jesus in the Jordan, what happened to the Apostles in the Upper Room, has been happening to the Church during all these twenty centuries, - but in a very special way during the last four decades through the many and varied renewal movements in the Church, in answer to the prayer of Pope John XXIII on 25th January 1959 for a New Pentecost in the Church in order to usher in a Renewal that would be manifested by Signs and Wonders. The Holy Spirit has indeed been coming down upon God's people, as it did upon Jesus (Lk 3:22) and upon Mary and the Apostles (Acts 2:4), and God is now with them in power (Acts 10:38), and Jesus is working in them with wonders (Mk 16:20). But are we becoming more aware that we too have received the same Spirit (Acts 19:2). Are we letting the Spirit fill and control our life? (Eph 5:18). Let us therefore make our own the third Eucharistic Prayer, "Father, grant that we, who are nourished by the body and blood of your Son, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ."

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