John the Baptist was a very fierce man. This might be what you would expect of someone who lived most of his life in the desert. He knew all about hardship and he had the marks of penance on his body. Much of his message was taken up in condemnation, condemnation of those living a life of luxury and giving no thought to the life of the Spirit. But if John was so fierce why did so many people come to him, people from all over Palestine? If I preached fierce condemnatory sermons each week you would soon get fed up, so why did the people flock to hear John.
They came because he had a message of hope. Yes, he was fierce, but he was also gentle. He tapped into something deep inside each person. He knew that each one of us is profoundly aware of their own guilt and wants to repent and he drew this out. But he was also able to tell them that one of their deepest yearnings was also about to be filled, a Saviour was about to come. One who would reach out to them with the hand of healing and salvation. They came to John because he had a message of hope, and the hope he pointed to was Jesus.
You can see the beautiful humility and gentleness in John when Jesus asks him for Baptism and he says: ‘But it is I who need Baptism from you.’ Jesus, just as gently, tells him to go ahead. Jesus was commencing his public ministry, John had been preaching that the Saviour was already here and so Jesus came to John to make, if you like, a formal start to his ministry. Jesus, of course, had no need of Baptism. It has often been speculated over the centuries why he received Baptism from John. But, if you think about it, it was entirely typical of him.
The Church places this feast so close to the Feast of the Incarnation, Christmas and that gives us a clue. There was no strict necessity for the incarnation; God could have brought about our salvation in an instant if he wanted to. Jesus, through the incarnation, chose to take on human form and by becoming like us brought about our salvation. Jesus undergoes Baptism in order to be like us and show us the way to salvation. In the same way he will undergo death in order to make salvation possible for us.
Jesus chooses this propitious moment to be baptised by John, and it became a moment of wonderful revelation. The Holy Spirit descending like a dove and the voice of God blessing and approving Jesus action. He begins his ministry in this wonderful way. It is a ministry we are going to hear about through the words of St Matthew over the next year. It was a ministry which was truly blessed by God, he through healing and teaching over the next three years made God present to the people in a truly wonderful way.
This is the first reference in the Bible to the Holy Spirit coming in the form of a dove. A dove was not an image that was generally used by the Hebrews. In fact, about the only reference to a dove is Noah sending out the dove over the waters to find land, the dove returned bearing an olive branch.
But what a wonderful coincidence of images. Here Christ descends into the waters of Baptism; the flood in Noah's time is generally seen as a prefigurement of this Baptismal water. The Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove on Jesus as a sign of the Father's favour and the assurance of salvation. The dove returns to Noah with the sign that salvation, dry land, is at hand. Scripture is full of such lovely parallels; that is why it is so fruitful for meditation. We would hardly think that there could be a direct connection with Noah's flood and yet there it is. And what better image of salvation could there be than dry land.
Most of us were baptised as infants, we have no recollection of our Baptism, yet we know it was the most significant day of our life. It was the day we were specially singled out by God for ministry in the world. It is the sign of his special favour resting upon us. We have through that closely linked sacrament, Confirmation, had the power of the Holy Spirit poured out on us. We, like Christ, have begun a ministry for we are the instruments he has chosen to communicate his salvation to the world.
If we undertake it with due seriousness, it is a ministry which will be marked by miracles, healings, powerful signs from heaven, temptations, and moments of deep communion with God. It will transfigure our lives and we will become God's windows on the world, conduits of his love to all we meet. But it will be a Baptism, and Baptism means death. It means going down into the water and literally drowning. It is a death to self.
If we are to be true followers of Christ this is what it will mean. It won't be at all easy but in order to achieve greatness real sacrifice is necessary. Then when we break through that ultimate barrier our own bodily death the church will gather and pray over us that wonderful and powerful prayer: You have been baptised with Christ may you now rise with him in glory.
To draw out this connection with our own Baptism instead of reciting the Creed today we will renew our Baptismal promises.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket