Summary: The Baptism of the Lord should be seen as the coming of Jesus, the Bridegroom of the Church.
Baptism of the Lord
13 January 2012
The Bridegroom Comes
Today’s feast, the Baptism of Jesus, is the midpoint of a two-week festival called Epiphany, or “manifestation.” It begins with the Feast of the Three Kings, and their gifts of gold, incense and myrrh to Mary and Jesus. It continues with our commemoration today of John baptizing Jesus, which features John telling his followers that he is not the Messiah, that the Messiah’s coming is near, that John is not worthy even to unfasten the Messiah’s sandals, and that the Messiah will also baptize, but with the Holy Spirit and fire, fire which will burn away the world’s sin. Moreover, John witnessed the beginning of this spiritual revolution, when, despite his protests, he baptized Jesus and saw the Holy Spirit descend on Him in the form of a dove. The last Mass of the festival is a week from today, when Mary and Jesus attend a wedding at Cana, and Mary’s tender care for the newlyweds results in Jesus’s first miracle, the turning of a couple of hundred liters of water into the finest wine.
What is the Church trying to tell us by breaking open three Sundays of seemingly unrelated Scriptures for us? Remarkably, the key that will unlock this beautiful mystery is found in John’s statement: I am not worthy to unfasten His sandals. I was always taught that this expresses John’s humility, and it’s a reminder of how any human must consider himself unworthy of the Lord Jesus’s attention and grace. I deserve no part of the torrent of gifts God has blessed me with. All is grace; all is a result of the overwhelming, self-sacrificing love of the Trinity.
But there is an even more important underlying Biblical reality here. The New Testament refers five separate times to John’s words. It is very rare to find the same incident recorded in all four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, but this statement is in all five. That means it was critical to all the NT communities as they taught their members about Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man.
It is that John is not worthy to untie or take off the sandals of Jesus’s feet that struck with such force in the early Christian community. A hint is found in John’s Gospel: “the last recorded words of St. John the Baptist are: ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He, who has the bride, is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore, this joy of mine is now full.’” To understand the tie-in between Jesus’s sandals and the picture of John as best man at a wedding, we should look back at the Book of Deuteronomy. “The Levirate Law is the name of an ancient custom ordained by Moses, by which, when an Israelite male died without issue, his surviving brother was required to marry his widow, so as to continue his brother’s family through the son that might be born of that marriage (cf. Gen 38:8; Deut 25:5-10, Ruth 4). But, if the surviving brother refused to marry the widow, a rite called halizah would occur. The book of Deuteronomy describes the halizah rite: And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders, and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ Then, the elders of his city shall call him, and speak to him: and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot, and spit in his face; and she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him that had his sandal pulled off.’”
So the sandal is the footwear of the man who has a right to the Bride. The sandal is worn by the Bridegroom. St. John, the best man, acknowledges that Jesus is the Bridegroom of Israel, the One spoken of by so many prophets over two millennia before His coming. “Even more, he is saying that Christ does not intend to repudiate Israel, but to enter into covenant with her.” Because of Israel’s many infidelities, whoring after fertility gods and murdering their infant children as acts of idol worship, God had repudiated His chosen people and sent them into exile. At the time of Jesus, the restored nation had walled itself off, had given up on its mission to call the Gentiles to right worship. They had even turned the Temple area dedicated to the Gentiles into an outdoor bazaar. Despite that, John and Jesus saw and affirmed the marital covenant between God and His people, between Jesus, the Messiah Bridegroom, and His Bride, who would now be the Church. That is why last week’s feast is so important–Jew and Gentile alike are to be incorporated into the Bride, washed with a baptism of Holy Spirit and fire, as we see this week. And next week we will see the Bridegroom symbolically beginning the wedding banquet with the Church, as He turns a wedding catastrophe into a wedding festival by changing water into the finest wine.