Baptism of the Lord Jesus 2021
Reading St. Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus, which is the shortest of the three Gospel accounts, I am struck by the language used just before the Father’s voice is heard from heaven. We heard that Jesus “saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.” And then the Father calls Jesus His beloved son in whom He is well pleased. The first-century Church, born in Palestine, quickly became a Greek-speaking and world-wide community of believers. Their Bible was the Old Testament, and it was the Greek translation of the Hebrew originals. The Greek root used here for the opening up of the clouds is “schizo,” which literally means to split, tear, or rip. That implies a kind of violent separation, and yet the divine gift descending on Jesus is not by lightening or a destroying fire, but the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The dove is just the opposite of violent. To Noah it meant the calm after the storm, the peace after the violence of the Great Flood. Something different is going on here, and we need to contemplate God’s word to see what He wants of us.
Mark’s Gospel, we read recently in our bulletin, was written in a time of Roman persecution, probably for the community of Christians in Rome. Those ancestors in faith were used to hiding from Nero’s thugs, who blamed them for the great fire that Nero probably set himself. Just thirty or so years after the ascension of Jesus to the Father, they were looking forward to Christ’s return in glory, to take them to be with Him forever. Like the Jews earlier in that century, they wanted the Messiah to come and smite the Roman oppressors and establish again David’s kingdom over the whole world. They surely prayed in Isaiah’s words: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!”
That’s the natural human reaction when wickedness prevails, when the boot is on the neck of those who long for justice. We just want God to execute vengeance on the evildoers and vindicate the just. But God tells us right here in the first reading: “let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.” The problem of the world–then and now–transcends politics. The problem is interior, inside every human. It is the hardness of our hearts that produces a culture of selfishness, whether in the Roman empire or the American republic. It cannot be cured from outside, by new laws and force and violence. That may give a short truce, but without widespread conversion, the evil in hard hearts will just burst out later more ferociously. No, Jesus knew and we too must admit that only metanoia of heart and acceptance of Christ’s law of love can truly build a just society. Conversion changed Rome in the first millennium, and that’s what will conquer evil in our time.
So the symbols of that conquest are all centered on the Holy Family. A baby in an animal’s feed trough with Mary and Joseph nurturing and protecting Him. A humble Jewish carpenter coming like everyone else to be baptized by John, not so that He can confess sin He has never committed, but to change the whole meaning and power of baptism through love and the Holy Spirit. That same Jewish carpenter teaching His people how to be poor and meek and pure of heart and joyful in persecution. And then being beaten and whipped through the streets of Jerusalem to die the death of a slave on a Roman cross. Ah, but then to rise again as He promised and the Scriptures foretold, to fill His community with His Spirit and change human life from the inside, with sacraments, not swords, with peace, not violence.
God’s word never returns to Him empty. On the evening before Jesus died, He gathered His disciples for one last meal, a Passover meal before His own bloody Passover. He took bread and said the divine Word: “This is my Body, given for you.” And the wine in the cup, His powerful Word made into His precious Blood. The next day His Sacred Heart accepted the soldier’s lance and poured forth the Blood of Eucharist and the waters of Baptism, just after He gave over His Spirit. Those are the three witnesses: Spirit, water and blood.
These are times that try our souls. When the secular parts of our world collapse under the weight of theft, fraud, lying and disrespect, violence solves nothing, and brings only more violence. Seek the will of God, pray for your persecutors and for the conversion of evildoers, and share the Gospel whenever you can. We know what our goal, our end, will be. Let’s see how many people we can take to heaven with us. Those who know God’s will can truly “Shout and sing for joy.”