In a normal (pre-pandemic) time, the secular Christmas (the one that most people actually care about) would have started somewhere around Halloween and then gone on almost non-stop until suddenly fizzling out on Christmas Day itself - the day when Christmas actually begins according the Church’s calendar. As Catholic Christians, we are called to live in and by liturgical time, and to keep Christmas and Epiphany as they are meant to be kept, especially in this time when the Church community is so distressed by political divisions. Of course, the Church’s Christmas cannot go on forever either, and in the contemporary calendar it is today’s celebration of the Baptism of the Lord which more or less brings the season to an end. This focus on Christ’s baptism by John makes that event the formal culmination of the entire Advent and Christmas cycle.
Jesus’ baptism by John is mentioned in three of the four gospels and alluded to in the fourth. It was also explicitly referred to by Peter in the Acts of the Apostles on the occasion of the baptism of the first pagan converts. So it was obviously well remembered and had apparently made an important impression, as the public starting-point of the Jesus story.
John’s baptism had been a ritual of repentance, dramatizing one’s need for conversion and one’s willingness to start anew, as their ancestors had when they had first passed through the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. By being baptized by John, Jesus blended into the mass of anonymous sinners that we are. By being baptized as one of us, Jesus joined us (which was, of course, the point of his becoming human and being born in the first place.)
Jesus joined us in the water, but then, on coming up from the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11)
Not just Jesus alone but the whole Trinity joined in to reveal who Jesus is!
In Mark’s account, the voice speaks only to Jesus, It is Jesus himself who will reveal himself through his life and mission. Now the testimony of God is this, that he has testified on behalf of his Son.
Jesus, God’s beloved Son, has made us also beloved sons and daughters of his Father. But being beloved is a challenge as well as an opportunity. Having let us in on his story, on who he is and the total trajectory of his life, Jesus’ baptism challenges us to identify with that trajectory and to recognize the intended trajectory of our own lives and to respond accordingly.
(Photo: The Baptism of Christ, c. 1500, by Giovanni Bellini, Santa Corona, Vicenza, Italy)