The end of the Season of Christmas arrives this Sunday, as we celebrate the event that marked the end of Jesus early life and the beginning of his public ministry: the Baptism.
The Christmas decorations coming down in our churches and homes inevitably leaves a feeling of sadness and nostalgia. We dont want to move on from meditation on all the joyful aspects of Our Lords early life, the incidents of wonder and mystery, like the angels singing to the shepherds, or the visit of the Magi. Nonetheless, as we leave the Christmas Season behind, todays readings remind us of the power of the Holy Spirit that we share with Jesus! The very Spirit of God has been given us in our own baptismsthis Spirit has ushered us into a new world, a New Creation in which we can daily walk with God, just like Adam and Eve once walked with God in the cool of the garden.
So we will look for New Creation themes as we work through this Sundays Readings.
[The celebrant should pick one sequence or the other, not choose the First, Psalm, and Second Readings randomly. Each sequence (ABC or C) has a kind of integrity and commonality of theme.]
I will comment on the Year C sequence in this post.
1. The First Reading is Is 40:1-5, 9-11. This very famous passage is the introduction to the second part of the Book of Isaiah (40-66), a section of Isaiah which, since ancient times, was regarded as one continuous description of the latter days, that is, the coming era of peace and restoration marked by the arrival of Gods Servant, who would later be referred to as the Messiah, literally, the one smeared with oil (i.e. anointed).
When asked about his identity in the Gospels, John the Baptist identifies himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah 40. Since Isaiah 40 is the introduction to the latter days in the Book of Isaiah, we may say that John the Baptist identifies himself as a kind of Introduction Incarnate, a Prologue in a Person or Foreword in the Flesh.
We comment on each section of this beautiful prophecy:
Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end,
her guilt is expiated;
indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD
double for all her sins.
This passage is set to music in utterly sublime fashion by G.F. Handel in the oratorio The Messiah. Click here to listen.
These verses mark the transition in the Book of Isaiah from a primary emphasis on condemnation of Israel for past sins (Isaiah 1-39) to a primary emphasis on hope for restoration in the future (Isaiah 40-66). The hope for restoration is largely dependent on a mysterious figure the prophet refers to as the Servant, and describes extensively in passages found in chs. 42, 44, 49, 50, 52-53, and 61. The identity of the servant is enigmatic. As we can see in Acts 8:34, ancient readers were confused as to who he was. In modern scholarship, debates continue to rage on this subject. Followers of Jesus, however, are convinced that Isaiahs Servant is Jesus Christ.
The message of these verses is that the punishment on Israel (represented here by her capital, Jerusalem) has been sufficient. Now is the time for restoration and forgiveness. So the arrival of Jesus in public marks the end of condemnation of sin (in the ministry of John the Baptist) and the beginning of the forgiveness of sin and healing (in the ministry of Jesus).
A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill shall be made low;
the rugged land shall be made a plain,
the rough country, a broad valley.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Who is this voice crying out? The prophecy does not tell us, but John the Baptist identifies it as himself. The message of the voice employs the imagery of ancient highway-building for the visit of a king or emperor to the distant parts of his empire. Workers (essentially slaves) would be employed to level the road (valleys filled in, hills dug down) for the kings highway. In this text, however, the coming King is the LORD himself.
In the Gospels, it becomes clear that we are not talking about a physical highway. The highway of God is Jesus: I am the Way, the truth, the life John 14:6. The valleys that need to be raised are the poor in spirit, who may despair of their salvation because they are overly aware of their sins (see Luke 18:13). These people need to be raised up to hope for salvation. The mountains are the proud, who need to be humbled before they can be saved (see Luke 18:11-14). These themes are prominent also in the Blessed Mothers Magnificat (Luke 1:52-53).
Go up on to a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD,
who rules by a strong arm;
here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care.
Here, a herald identified only as Zion and Jerusalem is commanded to announce to the people of God that their LORD has arrived to be their shepherd.
The promise of the LORD being a good shepherd is closely related to some other important Old Testament texts: Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34. The accounts of the Feeding of the 5,000 in Mark 6 and John 6 draw heavily on imagery from these two passages. Jesus shows himself to be the Good Shepherd by feeding the tribes of Israel on the mountain heights with good pasture until they are fully satisfied. But the Feeding of the 5000 is really an anticipation of the Eucharist. We experience Jesus feeding his flock every time we receive his Body and Blood.
This theme of announcing the arrival of the LORD is, of course, strongly related to the Gospel Reading, because the Baptism was the public debut of Our Lords ministry and message. With the descent of the Holy Spirit, we see that Jesus is God in our very presence.
2. The Responsorial consists of selections from Psalm 104:
R. (1) O bless the Lord, my soul.
O LORD, my God, you are great indeed!
you are clothed with majesty and glory,
robed in light as with a cloak.
You have spread out the heavens like a tent-cloth;
R. O bless the Lord, my soul.
You have constructed your palace upon the waters.
You make the clouds your chariot;
you travel on the wings of the wind.
You make the winds your messengers,
and flaming fire your ministers.
R. O bless the Lord, my soul.
How manifold are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you have wrought them all
the earth is full of your creatures;
the sea also, great and wide,
in which are schools without number
of living things both small and great.
R. O bless the Lord, my soul.
They look to you to give them food in due time.
When you give it to them, they gather it;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
R. O bless the Lord, my soul.
If you take away their breath, they perish and return to the dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.
R. O bless the Lord, my soul.
We want to note here the strong creation imagery of the Psalm. The Cosmos is described as Gods palace which he has constructed upon the waters with the help of the wind (wind and Spirit are the same word in Hebrew, ruach) under the outspread tent-cloth of the heavens. The waters, the Spirit, and the heavens will recur in the Baptism account.
This Psalm praises God as the creator of the heavens and the earth. The principle of creation is summarized at the end: When you send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
This Psalm helps us to understand the Baptism as a great manifestation of a New Creation. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of the first creation in Genesis 1:2, and then brought forth the dry land, so in the Gospel reading the Spirit will descend on the waters and Jesus will emerge. Jesus is the New Creation. He brings us into a whole new existence. We dont really start to live until we know Him. So St. Paul says, If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation! (2 Cor 5:17).
At each of our baptisms, we are created anew. We come to baptism in the darkness and non-existence of sin, in a state of privation where we lack the Spirit of God which alone truly gives life. We are submerged in the waters over which the Spirit hovers, and emerge like the dry land, like Jesus, a truly new creation.
The grace of God has appeared, saving all
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
as we await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory of our great God
and savior Jesus Christ,
who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness
and to cleanse for himself a people as his own,
eager to do what is good.
When the kindness and generous love
of God our savior appeared,
not because of any righteous deeds we had done
but because of his mercy,
He saved us through the bath of rebirth
and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom he richly poured out on us
through Jesus Christ our savior,
so that we might be justified by his grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
This passage is a short homily, if you will, from St. Paul on baptism. The non existence we experienced before baptism is characterized by godless ways and worldly desires and lawlessness. It is essentially the relentless and self-destructive pursuit of money, sex, and power that we see all around us. The New Creation is to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age because we have become heirs in hope of eternal life. It is a totally different kind of life from the ground up, because instead of desperately trying to have as much pleasure as possible before we die, we spend our lives in peace preparing for eternity. This is the new life inaugurated by the bath of rebirth
renewal by the Holy Spirit
richly poured out on us.
The people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
After all the people had been baptized
and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,
heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him
in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven,
You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased.
The heaven was opened may be understood in both a natural and supernatural way: a break in the clouds, but also a new opening of access to the realm of God. The descent of the Spirit in bodily form like a dove evokes the image of the Spirit hoveringthat is, moving back and forth (Heb. hithhalēk)over the waters of creation in Genesis 1:2. Then the voice of the Father is heard from heaven: You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased. This statement of the Father echoes several important passages of Scripture:
(1) Abraham, take your son, your beloved son, whom you love
(Gen 22:2), the introduction to the account of the sacrifice of Isaac, in which Isaac is thrice called the beloved son (agapētos) in the Septuagint (LXX) Greek translation of the Old Testament. This allusion shows Jesus as a New Isaac, the beloved Son who will sacrifice himself on the holy mountain out of love for God and for his Father.
(2) I will declare the decree of the LORD,
He said to me, You are my son
The royal coronation hymn of the Davidic kings had this line for the new king to recite as he ascended the throne. It is an affirmation of the Davidic covenant, by which each heir to the throne had the privilege of a filial (sonship) relationship with God: I will be his father, and he will be my son. This echo implies that Jesus is the Son of David, the heir to throne of Israel. In fact, the baptism comprises the washing and anointing ceremony by which each Son of David marked the beginning of his reign (see 1 Kings 1:38-40; understand that the Gihon was the stream where the new king was washed before being anointed by the priest and prophet). Note that in most of the Gospels, shortly after the Baptism Jesus begins to preach The Kingdom of God has arrived. Indeed, because he has begun his royal reign.
(3) Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, (Isa 42:1). The verbal parallels are inexact, but the thematic parallels with the Baptism and the words of the divine voice from heaven are very clear. This is why Isa 42 is the standard ABC reading in the Lectionary for the Baptism. The parallels between the passages show that Jesus is the mysterious servant of Isaiah, who is marked with Gods spirit, comes to preach good news to the poor (Isa 61:1-2), and will suffer and die to redeem many (Isa 52:1353:12).
Jesus is the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament expectation: the new Isaac, the new David, the manifestation of the Isaianic Servant. But especially in todays reading, he is the manifestation of the New Creation.
Through baptism we have truly been incorporated into a New Creation, a new life and way of existence. However, it takes faith to experience this. If we do not believe the truth of what has happened in our baptism, the reality remains true, but we do not experience the fruits of that reality. In our prayer this Sunday, lets meditate on the reality of the gift of the Spirit which renewed each one of us in the sacrament. If necessary, lets renew the sacrament of Baptism by going to Confession before this upcoming feast day. And finally, lets remember that the New Creation is the world to come, the fullness of life we will experience after the death of this earthly body. If we still are living day by day for pleasurefor money, sex, and powerwe are actively undoing what Christ has done for us in baptism.