Year A: The Baptism of the Lord (First Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 3: 13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him. After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Jesus’ baptism began his public ministry. What are you called to by your baptism?
  2. In what ways have you awakened to or experienced the spiritual gifts of your baptism? What are these for you?
  3. When have you had an experience of the Holy Spirit coming upon you? How did you respond?
  4. What has your “son or child of God identity” awakened in you and how have you passed that on to others?

Biblical Context

Matthew 3: 13-17
Dr. Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

On the Second Sunday of Advent we read Matthew’s account of John the Baptist preparing the way for the Lord (Matt 3:1-12). John made it clear that the one for whom he prepared was far greater than he “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals” (Matt 3:11). In Matthew’s Gospel this account of John’s ministry comes immediately before the story of Jesus’ baptism that we read today.

Today we read that “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.” This raises a question in many of our minds. Why would Jesus need to be baptized by John? As Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ baptism it is evident that he expected his post-resurrection audience to ask this question. That Matthew is responding to this question becomes evident when we compare Matthew’s account to Mark’s.

Scripture scholars believe that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source when they were compiling their own Gospels. This means that one way to understand Matthew’s particular concerns is to compare his account to Mark’s. When Matthew diverges from his source does so for a reason. In Mark’s Gospel when John baptizes Jesus (see Mark 1:9-11), John does not raise the objection that he raises in Matthew’s account: “John tried to prevent him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?’ ” By placing this question on John’s lips Matthew is responding to the question, was Jesus baptized?”

When explaining to John why he should be baptized Jesus says, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” To “fulfill all righteousness” is to do God’s will, to promote justice. Jesus modeled complete obedience to the will of his Father. He was showing sinners the way to righteousness. Matthew then tells us that after Jesus was baptized “the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him.” Jesus is filled with the Spirit as he prepares to begin his public ministry. Then a voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

The words “This is my beloved Son” are an allusion to Psalm 2 is a messianic psalm, that is, it speaks of the messiah, the anointed one (the –word messiah means anointed’) whom God would send to save God’s people. The Israelites understood their kings to be God’s anointed. This psalm would have been sung over the centuries to honor the king.

In Psalm 2 God affirms that God has appointed Israel’s king:

“I myself have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.” (Ps 2:6)

Then the king speaks:

I will proclaim the decree of the Lord, who said to me, “You are my son; today
I am your father. Only ask it of me and I will make your inheritance the
nations and your possession the ends of the earth.” (Ps 2: 7-8)

Alluding to this psalm Matthew is once more teaching what he has already taught in his story of the annunciation to Joseph: Jesus is God’s son, begotten of God.

The words “with whom I am well pleased” are an allusion to the Book of Isaiah, and are part of our Old Testament Lectionary reading for this First Sunday in Ordinary Time. As we will soon see, alluding to this passage Matthew is foreshadowing Jesus’ passion and death and teaching that Jesus is God’s suffering servant whose passion and death redeemed all nations.

Awakening to Love

Spiritual Reflection
John Shea

There has always been a creative tension in the way Christians relate to Jesus Christ. On the one hand, Jesus is the unique Son of God, irreplaceable and beyond imitation. On the other hand, Christians participate in the identity of Jesus Christ, continuing his presence on earth and imitating his way of life. Therefore, Christians are “sons and daughters in the Son.” The descending dove and the speaking sky that combine to communicate love and mission to Jesus are passed along through Jesus to all his followers. The ultimate communication of the story of Jesus is for his followers to see and hear what he saw and heard as he came up out of the waters of the Jordan.

Jesus is the firstborn. As Paul says, God calls people “to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family” (Rom 8:29). In another image taken from the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is a “pioneer” (Heb 12:2). He has blazed a trail for others to follow. In yet another image, Jesus can be called first awakened from sleep (cf. Eph 5:14 and Col 1:18) Jesus’ baptism has awakened him to his ultimate identity as the beloved one. Now his mission is to awaken others to their ultimate identity as beloved ones. One astute observer of Gospel stories suggested that Zacchaeus came to see and love in himself what Jesus saw and loved in him. By extension, it could be said that Peter came to see and love in himself what Jesus saw and loved in him, and Mary Magdalene came to see and love in herself what Jesus saw and loved in her. Jesus sees the “child of God” (see John 1:12 and 1 John 3:1) in people with such clarity and persistence that they begin to see it in themselves. But, in order for him to see the “child of God” in others, he must first know it in himself. In this sense, Jesus’ baptism by water and Spirit is the precondition for the baptism by water and Spirit of all Christians. The one who would awaken others to love must first himself be awakened.

Therefore, awakening to love is essentially an interpersonal chain. The awakened Jesus awakens others, and then those awaken still others. In this way, communities are built up, traditions developed, and the revelation of Jesus is passed from generation to generation.

This might be one of the meanings of the word “evangelization.” Evangelization happens when awakened people awaken others to their “child of God” identity.

However, this awakening to love is neither a quick nor romantic process. It is a long haul endeavor that demands rigorous self-examination, persistence, and not a little courage. First, it must be understood that coming into a “child of God” identity is not chasing an ideal. It is not trying to become something that at the moment people are not. People are beloved children of God. There is no need to make them children of God. The task is for them to realize this truth of their identity. Therefore, Jesus awakens people to what they already are. He facilitates awareness; he does not bring to them something that had been previously absent. This perception is captured in the saying, “Jesus stands by the river selling river water.”

Second, it must never be forgotten that people are more than just children of God. They are also children of Ralph and Anna, Marlene and Bob, Roxanne and Pete. They are bodies with inherited tendencies toward sickness and health, conditioned personalities built up out of experiences and internalizations, roles and responsibilities that go so deep they often practically define who they are. The “son and daughter of God” identity is not another identity, existing alongside or above this complex human make-up. The “child of God” identity exists within the flux and flow of the total reality of people. Therefore, awakening to the “child of God” identity initially means discerning it in the midst of other elements and noticing how it is expressed and repressed in the dynamics of body, mind, and social relationships. In other words, the “child of God” identity entails dealing with both finitude and sin.

Therefore, as some aspects of the Christian tradition have always maintained, the human person is a combination of essential communion and
existential alienation, an original blessing and a profound curse. The way through the alienation to the communion and through the curse to the blessing
is a difficult path. In the Gospels Jesus has walked this path and helps others walk it. He is not a blind guide leading the blind. He is a seeing guide leading the blurred. He is patiently persistent in his efforts to awaken people to love. All that he says and does— his exchanges with people, his stories, his teachings, his deeds of power, and his instructions to his disciples—are in the service of this awakening. They are the strategies of a spiritual teacher more than they are the pronouncements of a theologian.

For me, this emphasis on the way people come to their “child of God” identity is the ultimate reason why John must baptize Jesus. As the embodiment of divine love, Jesus must know the whole process of awakening. Realizing the “child of God” identity is not only welcoming the Spirit and hearing the voice. It also entails “dis-identifying” with all that is not love. This is what John’s desert and his cleansing baptism are all about. Jesus himself continues John’s baptism in his preaching and teaching about the forgiveness of sins. What he learned at the Jordan was: only if you ascend out of the waters of repentance can you see the dove descend and hear the voice speak.

In St. Matthew’s story the dove makes a direct descent, and the “beloved child of God” identity is instantly bestowed in the revelatory moment of the accompanying heavenly voice. But I like the three-stage foray of Noah’s dove. First, it goes out and can find no land. So it returns to the ark, its only refuge from the destructive waters. Our first attempts to understand and make our own a “child of God” identity are often unsuccessful, and we scurry back to safety. Next, the dove returns with an olive branch. We begin to see signs of a new possibility, but we are not there yet. Finally, we do not return for we have found a place to stand. Once again, as in the act of creation, God has created land out of the chaotic waters, and we have a place to stand against the destructive sea. The place we are standing is called, “the beloved child of God.”

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle a, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2006 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.