Commentary on the Readings
Baptism of the Lord – January 13, 2019 – Year C
He wanted to Rise with Us from the Abyss
The biblical sites are often tied to a theological significance. The sea, the mountain, the desert, the Galilee of the Gentiles, Samaria, the Jordan River, the land beyond the lake of Genezareth are much more than simple geographical indications (often not entirely accurate).
Luke does not specify the place where the baptism of Jesus took place, but John alludes to it: “It happened in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing” (Jn 1:28). The tradition has correctly located the episode in Bethabara, the ford where even the people of Israel, guided by Joshua, crossed the river and entered the Promised Land.
The gestures of Jesus present explicit references to the passage from slavery to freedom and to the beginning of a new exodus to the true Promised Land. Bethabara has also another recall, less obvious, but equally significant: the geologists ensure that this is the lowest point on earth (400m below sea level).
The decision to start from there the public life cannot be random. Jesus came from the heights of heaven to free people. He went down into a deeper abyss to show that he desires the salvation of every person. He wants to save even the most derelict, the one dragged by guilt and sin in an abyss no one imagines the possibility of getting out. God does not forget and does not abandon any of his children.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
And the grace of God appears, bringing salvation to all people.”
The first years of exile in Babylon were difficult, but, as a result, the Israelites adapted to their new condition and many were able to reach even prestigious social positions.
After forty years, a prophet arose. He was an enlightened man, a sensitive poet, a brilliant theologian. He attentively followed the political events of his time and realized that the kingdom of Babylon was crumbling, while the power of Cyrus, king of Persia, was dramatically growing. It was time to awaken in the exiles the hope of slavery’s end and the imminent return to the fatherland. He began to circulate among the captives his insights, his predictions, and hopes. So as not to arouse suspicions of the Babylonians authorities, who could accuse him of being a subversive, he made use of an encrypted language. He used images that only the children, his people, were able to understand. He announced the upcoming release from the Babylonian slavery referring to the miracles that occurred during the exodus from Egypt and promising even greater prodigies.
Few of the deportees cultivated his spiritual sensitivity. The majority, seduced by the lure of pagan life, was now part of the new social and religious reality. It had forgotten the glorious past and saw the references to the promises made to Abraham as fairy tales devoid of any value. These exiles, weakened in faith, were unable to grasp the calls of God. They had neither the courage nor the strength to start a new life and were dispersed among the Gentiles. The history of salvation went on without them. The exiles’ greater danger was not its toughness but its seductions and its attractions.
The experience of these prisoners is a warning to one who, like them, adapts himself to a banal and no prospects life, although convenient, and rejects the persuasions of the Lord to let himself be freed, to look to the future with the eyes of God.
The message of this prophet is therefore addressed to us.
It starts with a pressing invitation: “Be comforted my people … . Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, proclaim to her that her time of bondage is at an end, that her guilt has been paid for … . She has received double punishment for all her iniquity” (vv. 1-2). As the thieves who had to pay twice what they had stolen (Ex 22:3), Israel had served her mistakes, she had paid hard, beyond measure, just as it always happens to those who deviate from God’s ways.
In common parlance, to console is equivalent, in most cases, to speaking words of comfort, to communicate a bit of serenity to one in distressed, but does not change the painful situation that causes pain. The consolation of God cannot be reduced to a tender caress that heartens. God consoles assisting one who is in desperate straits, consoles the miserable by lifting him from the dust (Is 2:8), changing his mourning into dancing and his cry into a song of joy (Ps 30:12).
Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Consoler (Jn 14:15) because, with his coming, he renews the face of the earth (Ps 104:30).
God consoles, that is, he sets people free from all bondage, through his Word, which is not as fragile as the grass that dries up or withers like the flower that fades, but is alive and eternal (Is 40:6-8) and never returns to God without having done what it wants or accomplish that for which it was sent (Is 55:10-11).
In the second part of the reading (vv. 3-5), an anonymous voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord … every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made low.”
The construction of a road is the condition for God to come to comfort his people. A vast desert separates Palestine from Mesopotamia. The road that, in ancient times, connected Babylon to the cities of the Mediterranean coast did not cross it. It goes up north, skirting it for almost a thousand kilometers. The mysterious voice calls on the exiles to chart a new, spacious and straight road, which allows to easily and quickly reach the destination where the Lord wants to lead them.
The Prophet accumulates a series of images to highlight the commitments one must assume to make room for God in his own life. He asks to prepare the way for the Lord, not a path that leads a person to God, but one that allows God to reach a person.
The opening of this new road indicates the inner disposition to abandon the old ways, those that God has always refused: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways” (Is 55:8). The mountains to level and the valleys to be filled are the impediments to the encounter, communication, mutual respect between peoples of different culture, race, and religion. Only by removing these barriers it is possible to prepare the way for the Lord, the way of acceptance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
In a grand vision, in the third part of the reading (vv. 9-11), the prophet describes the return of the exiles in the holy city. Their guide is not a man as it happened during the exodus from Egypt. It is the Lord who preceded them and, as a shepherd leads his sheep “gathers the lambs in his arm … and gently leading those that are with young” (v. 11).
The image is moving. It shows God’s tenderness towards the weak. Tender, sweet, patient, he respects the time and spiritual rhythm of each one. He values who walks quickly but direct his attentions and concerns to one who advances with difficulty, one who lingers along the way.
When the group of exiles is almost close to the city, there are some who break away from the group and run ahead to announce the “good news” of liberation. Zion is invited by the Prophet to become the harbinger of “good news.” Her message of joy, the “gospel” proclaimed by her is: God will never abandon man, he will always look for him in all the land of bondage, and he’ll take him in his arms and will accompany him on the path that leads to freedom.
“For the grace of God has appeared!” (v. 11)—It is a joyful song of the Christian community reunited for the midnight mass of Christmas. It is an irrepressible cry of joy for what God has already accomplished by sending his Son into the world.
Grace is not a help, a favor that God gives to whoever invokes him in moments of difficulty. It is a biblical term laden with meaning: the tenderness, love and unconditional and unlimited goodness of God. This divine benevolence—the reading says—is made visible, is manifested in Jesus, the proclamation of salvation to all people (v. 11).
For all! If the Son of God came down from heaven to announce the salvation of the good ones, of those who faithfully keep the commandments, we would not have reason to rejoice; we would not be bathed by a new light. We only heard someone who reiterated what the spiritual guides of Israel repeated for centuries: who respects the law of Moses and his precepts is loved by God; the others are contemptible and base.
Joy instead becomes overwhelming when we realize that the Son of God speaks of salvation for all people. We got it right: salvation for all, because it is grace, a free gift and does not depend on our faithfulness, but on his.
The reading goes on showing the moral consequences of this manifestation of God’s goodness (vv. 12-14). The new life of a Christian is not the condition to merit the love of God but it is the response to this love. For a long time, it was thought that the fear of God would be the best deterrent to prevent evil and push people to do good. It was a poor pedagogical choice. This fear of God has never produced anything good and was the cause of pathological condition and abandonment of faith.
Only those who discover how immensely loved they are by God learn “to reject an irreligious way of life and worldly greed and to live in this world as responsible persons and daughters, upright and serving God” (v. 12). One who feels himself loved is induced to love.
Grace also instills hope. It nourishes the certainty that “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” will certainly manifest himself (v. 13). He will do so that his salvation reaches every person. The looming danger is that of losing precious moments of intimacy with him deferring the time of adhesion to his proposal of love.
In the last part of the reading (vv. 4-7) the author resumes the theme of the manifestation of God’s grace. He does it by counter posing the condition before baptism to the new reality in which one who has reached the benevolence of God is introduced. The description of corruption and alienation of the sinful humankind is very alive: “we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient and misled. We were slaves of our desires, seeking pleasure and every kind. We lived in malice and envy, hateful and hating each other” (3:3). It is a dramatic list of vices that touch the religious, personal and social life.
The situation seems really desperate and to humanity, nothing is left—according to our criteria of judgment—but to wait for punishment.
Instead here is the surprise: our Savior revealed his imminent goodness and love for humankind and saved us, not because of the good deeds we may have done but for the sake of his own mercy. Love is the only response God knows how to give.
Today’s Gospel opens with a significant finding, “the people were in expectation.” It is easy to imagine what they are waiting for: the slave expected freedom, the poor a new condition of life, the exploited laborer hoped for justice, the sick healing, and the humiliated and raped woman the recovery of dignity. All aspired a new world; they hoped that among people abuses, distortions, mistreatment would disappear and rapports of peace installed.
The people cultivated hope of change especially in the religious field perhaps not entirely conscious of it.
For three hundred years, the voice of the prophets was turned off. Heaven was closed and the silence of God was considered a well-deserved punishment for sins committed. The images of God as faithful ally, loving father, gentle husband, was put aside and the spiritual guides began to present the Lord especially as a strict and uncompromising legislator. Religion did not communicate joy, but anxiety, fear, anguish. Such an unbearable life called for something to change! Here are the reasons for waiting to which the Baptist had to give an answer.
When one lives in insupportable situations and ardently craves for something to change he relies on anyone who inspires some hope. However, one can also be fooled in identifying the liberator. The people of Israel who—as Jesus will one day say—was a flock without a shepherd (Mk 6:34) expecting from the Lord a guide and thinking the Baptist to be the Messiah. John corrects them: not me—he says—“one stronger than me is about to come. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire … . He comes with a winnowing fan to clear his threshing floor and gather the grain into his barn. But the chaff he will burn with fire that never goes out” (Lk 3:17). Earlier he said that “the axe is already laid to the root of the trees” (Lk 3:9). The judgment of God is imminent and it will be severe.
The language of the Baptist is hard and threatening, in line with the one used by some prophets. Malachi spoke of a “day flaming as a furnace. Then all the proud and all those who commit injustice shall be stubble; that day is coming and they will be burned” (Mal 3:19). Isaiah also threatened: “Broad and deep is its fire pit, piled up with dry grass and wood. The breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, will set it ablaze” (Is 30:33)
One cannot but notice the stark contrast between these terrifying images and the sweet and delicate expressions with which, in the first reading, the figure of the “servant of the Lord is presented.” There was no talk of violence, intolerance, aggression, destructive fire, but of patience and respect towards all, help to those in need, recovery of a broken reed, of hope for who is like a fumigant wick.
The Baptist’s words reflect the mentality of a people that the spiritual leaders have educated in the fear of God. Like everyone else, he too believed that injustice and sin had reached the ridge and that God’s solving intervention against the wicked was imminent.
He was right: with the coming of Christ, there would be no escape for evil. But on how God would cleanse the world of sin, the kind of fire that he would use … perhaps the Baptist was mistaken. We do not know exactly what he had in mind. We know rather well how Jesus acted: he did not attack sinners instead sat down to dinner with them; he has not strayed from the lepers instead he touched them; he did not condemn the adulteress but defended her against those who judged and despised her; he has not driven the sinful woman but let her caress and kiss him. Jesus has permanently closed the era in which God was imagined as a sovereign, severe, uncompromising executioner. He revealed the true face of God, the God who saves only. With his life, he projected a light also on the impressive images used by the Baptist and the prophets and has given the key to reading it. What they had said was true: God would send his fire on the earth, but not to destroy his children (though wicked), but to burn, to delete from everyone’s heart every form of evil.
This thought leads us to the second part of today’s Gospel (vv. 21-22).
At first glance, the story of Jesus’ baptism seems identical to that of the other evangelists. Actually, it presents some different and meaningful details. Above all, unlike the others, Luke does not describe the baptism of Jesus but speaks of it as a fact that has already taken place (v. 21). Clearly, for him the center of the story is not the baptism itself, but what happens immediately after: the opening of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit and, above all, the voice from heaven.
We are at the beginning of the public life and the evangelist wants the Christians of his community—that have already been baptized—to read the Gospel as addressed directly to them. He invites them to begin the route, to move their still unsure steps behind the Master who was baptized like them and walks beside them.
Then, only Luke notes that Jesus was immersed in the Jordan together with all the people. He is mistaken in the crowd. This is particularly stressed because, from the beginning of his mission, Jesus presents himself as the one who starts alongside the sinners. He does not judge nor rebuke them, not condemn, not despise them. He shares the condition of slavery and with them tread along the path that leads to freedom.
The third detail that appears only in Luke is the call to prayer. Jesus receives the Spirit while praying. The insistence on prayer is one of the characteristics of Luke. It is the first time that he presents Jesus in dialogue with the Father, later he will do it a dozen times more.
Jesus does not pray to give us a good example. He needs, like us, to find out what is the will of the Father; he needs to receive his light and strength to carry out at all times what is pleasing to him. He needs to pray now that he is in the stage in his mission; he will pray before choosing the apostles (Lk 6:12), before his passion (Lk 22:41) and pray, above all, on the cross (Lk 23:34,46) at the time of the most difficult test. To remain faithful to the Father, he needed to pray.
After this original introduction, Luke, like Matthew and Mark, describes the next scene with three images: the opening of the heavens, the dove, and the voice from heaven. He is not telling miraculous events that actually happened but uses images easily comprehensible to his readers. Their meaning is not difficult to grasp even for us today.
Let’s start with the opening of the sky.
This is not a meteorological information (between the thick and gloomy clouds, a bright and unexpected ray of sunshine would be filtered). If so Luke would have reported a really trivial detail and of no interest to our faith. What he wants to say to his readers is quite another. He is clearly alluding to a text of the Old Testament well-known to them.
In the last centuries before Christ, the people of Israel felt that the sky was closed. God, angry because of the sins and infidelities of his people, had retreated into his world. He had stopped sending prophets and seemed to have broken any dialogue with people. Pious Israelites wondered: When will this silence that distresses us, end? The Lord will not come back to talk to us; will he no longer show us his serene face, as in ancient times? They called upon him: “Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you our potter; we are the work of your hands. Do not let your anger go too far or think of our sins forever. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” (Is 64:7-8; 63:19).
Saying that, with the beginning of Jesus’ public life, the heavens are torn, Luke gives his readers a great, good news: God has heard the prayer of his people, has opened heaven and will never close it again. The enmity between heaven and earth is gone forever. The door of the Father’s house will eternally remain open to accommodate every child who wants to enter. Perhaps someone will arrive very late, but no one will be excluded.
The second image is that of the dove.
Luke does not say that a dove came down from heaven (this would also be a trivial and superfluous detail), but that the Holy Spirit descended “like a dove.”
The Baptist certainly remembers that from the sky not only manna but also the destructive water of flood (Gen 7:12), the fire and brimstone that incinerated Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24) came down. He probably expects the coming of the Spirit as a “devouring fire” of the wicked. The Spirit instead rests on Jesus as a “dove.” The Spirit is all tenderness, affection, and kindness. Moved by the Spirit, Jesus will approach sinners always with the gentleness and sweetness of the dove.
The dove was also a symbol of attachment to its nest. If the evangelist has this in mind, then he wants to tell us that the Spirit seeks Jesus as a dove seeks its nest. Jesus is the temple where the Spirit finds its permanent home.
The third image, the voice from heaven.
It is an expression used frequently by rabbis when they want to introduce a statement attributed to God. In our story, it is intended to present publicly, in the name of God, who Jesus is.
To understand the importance of the message of this voice, one must keep in mind that the passage was composed after the events of Easter and wants to answer the enigma provoked in the disciples by the ignominious death of the Master. In their eyes, he seemed to be a loser, an outcast and abandoned by the Lord. His enemies, guardians, and guarantors of the purity of the faith of Israel had condemned him a blasphemer. Has God shared this conviction?
To the Christians of his community, the evangelist presents the judgment of the Lord with a phrase that refers to three Old Testament texts.
“You are my son.” It is a quote of Psalm 2:7. In the Semitic culture, the term son did not indicate only the biological generation. It also implied the affirmation of a similarity, acting like the father. Presenting Jesus as “his son,” God guarantees to recognize himself in him, in his words, his gestures, in his works and in his supreme act of love, the gift of life. To know the Father people need not help but look at this child.
“The beloved.” This refers to the trial Abraham was subjected to. He was asked to offer his only and well beloved son, Isaac (Gen 22:2,12,16). By applying this title to Jesus, God invites us not to consider him a king or prophet like the others. He, like Isaac, is the only, the beloved Son. “In you, I am well pleased.” We have already read this expression in the first verse of today’s reading (Is 42:1). God declares that Jesus is the “servant” of whom the prophet spoke. He is the one sent to “establish law and justice” in the world. To fulfill this mission he will offer his life.
The “voice from heaven” therefore limelights the judgment pronounced by people. It also denies the Messianic expectations of the people of Israel. A humiliated, beaten, executed Messiah was inconceivable for the Jewish culture of the time. In the house of the high priest, Peter swore of not knowing the man. He was basically telling the truth. He could not recognize in him the Messiah. He did not resemble anything to the expected savior of Israel narrated in the catechesis of the rabbis.
The fulfillment of the prophecies from God’s part has been too surprising for everyone, also for the Baptist.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: