BETWEEN Epiphany and Candlemas, the lectionary explores different aspects of the coming of Christ as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2.32). This Sunday’s Gospel recounts the first “luminous mystery” of Jesus’s adult ministry: namely, his baptism in the Jordan. In the weeks that follow, we will reflect on the further “mysteries” of his miracle at Cana and his proclamation of the Kingdom.
The story of Jesus’s baptism is rich with scriptural allusions. Like the Red Sea, the River Jordan was parted miraculously as the people of Israel journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land (Joshua 3). The river parted once more when Elisha followed the prophet Elijah to its eastern bank, where he received a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit. Elijah was then taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire (see feature, page 25). Elisha’s ability to part the river as he returned was the first confirmation that he had inherited Elijah’s powers (2 Kings 2).
As Tim Gray explains, we know John the Baptist ministered on the eastern side of the Jordan because Luke tells us that he was in the area controlled by Herod: “John had the people of Israel cross the Jordan eastwards to hear his preaching and instructions. He called Israel out of the Promised Land to repent and be ritually baptised. Then they would cross westward, back into the Promised Land, as their forefathers had done with Joshua” (The Luminous Mysteries: Biblical reflections on the life of Christ).
In Gray’s words, the baptism of Christ “replays the story of Elijah at a new level”. As Elijah’s spirit descended on Elisha, so the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus “in bodily form like a dove”. The Spirit-filled ministry of Jesus will have important echoes of Elisha, who “anointed in the power of God’s Spirit, went forth and cured a leper, multiplied bread, and even raised the dead”.
As the Spirit descends on Jesus, the heavens open and the voice of the Father declares: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” There is a double allusion here to the Psalms. The declaration of sonship echoes God’s “decree” to David (2.7, cf. Hebrews 1.5), and the voice from heaven thundering over the waters echoes the psalm set for this feast day.
These many layers of scriptural allusion all serve to emphasise one central theological point. At Jesus’s baptism, the last and greatest of the Hebrew prophets is handing on his mantle to the Christ, the one in whom the promises of the old covenant will be fulfilled.
In undergoing baptism, the sinless Christ has identified himself with sinful humanity. The descent of the Spirit inaugurates a ministry which will wash away those sins once and for all. To accomplish this, Jesus has to undergo a further baptism: the Paschal journey in which he bears humanity through the deep waters of death into the light of resurrection life (cf. Mark 10.38-40, Luke 12.50). It is from this “baptism” on the cross that the Church receives the gift of baptism as a sacrament.
In John 1, the Baptist testifies that Jesus will baptise “with the Holy Spirit”. As Raniero Cantalamessa explains, this phrase distinguishes “the whole person and work of Christ from His precursor’s”. Jesus fulfils the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, which are “oriented to regenerating humanity by means of a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit” (cf. Joel 2.28-29).
In the sacrament of baptism, we are made members of the body of Christ — part of this “regenerated humanity”. We must, however, be open to the continuing work of the Spirit if this regeneration is to become manifest in our daily life: “The outpouring of the Spirit actualises and revives our baptism.” We see such an outpouring in our epistle, when the apostles lay hands on the Samaritans and pray that they will receive the Holy Spirit (Sober Intoxication of the Spirit: Filled with the fullness of God).
This is why the Spirit continues to raise up prophetic figures who resemble John the Baptist, calling us to repentance. But there is a difference. John was the last of the prophets who pointed forward to a redemption yet to be won. Today’s prophets recall us to “actualise and revive” the gifts that we have already received in our baptism into Jesus’s Paschal victory.