It can be said that the Public Ministry of Jesus began with his Baptism at the hands of John the Baptist in the River Jordan. In common with the other Synoptic Gospels St Luke gives us a very short account of this significant event; but, brief though it is, he includes all the essentials
One might wonder why Jesus needed to be Baptised at all, after all being the Son of God it could not be to repent of sin. In the account by St Matthew even John the Baptist questions Jesus, asking why he came to him for Baptism at all. Jesus simply says that it would be proper for him to be Baptised without giving any particular reason.
I think that what is happening here is that Jesus is showing us the way. He wants us to imitate him by being Baptised ourselves. As with everything else in Jesus’ life, where he has gone, we too will follow. As his disciples in the world we follow him in all that he says and does and, ultimately, we follow him through death to the final glory of the resurrection.
We must understand that Catholicism is a sacramental religion. By this we appreciate that the sacraments are the primary ways we receive God’s grace and love. Of course, we know that God can and does pour out his grace upon us all the time and in hundreds of different ways. Actually, we know that God’s grace is unrestrained and can never be confined by our merely human categories.
However, the Church teaches that whenever we celebrate the sacraments we can be absolutely certain that God’s grace is being bestowed on us. So, for us, the sacraments are viewed as the primary instruments of God’s grace. And, of course, the sacrament of Baptism is the key to all the other sacraments; it is the foundational sacrament if you like.
Baptism has two essential results, firstly it wipes us clean from sin and secondly it makes us members of the Church. It opens us up to receive the other sacraments, most particularly the Eucharist which is the sacrament that we most frequently experience and which is the main way that our souls are nourished by God’s grace.
As always, it is good to examine the text of the Gospel very carefully. Although St Luke’s account is very brief, we can see that there is a distinction drawn between the Baptism of Jesus and the Baptism of the people. The people experience a Baptism of Repentance while the Baptism of Jesus seems to occur in a private moment quite separate from the Baptism of the others. It is immediately obvious that the Baptism of Jesus is of a completely different order.
It is evident to us that Luke separates the Baptism of the people and the Baptism of Jesus to emphasise the difference between them. He also places the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice of the Father after a period of prayer by Jesus. It is made clear that these things are something specifically for him. His Baptism is a Baptism markedly different from theirs. It is the inauguration of his public ministry and the beginning of his proclamation of the Good News.
The voice of the Father, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, my favour rests on you’ is a wonderful confirmation of the validity of what Jesus is doing. Very similar words are spoken at the high point of Jesus ministry when he goes up the Mount of the Transfiguration to commune with his Father and is bathed in light.
What these words of the Father stress is that the Public Ministry of Jesus is not something conducted by him alone. He carries on his ministry in communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit. His ministry is therefore a Trinitarian one; at every point whatever it is that he is doing is done in conformity with the will of the Father.
One of the things to observe about the sacraments is that they all involve concrete actions. In Baptism it is quite obviously the pouring of water or sometimes it might involve total immersion. This water is cleansing; but it is cleansing not just of earthly dirt as we do whenever we bathe. This earthly cleansing is merely the sign of that much more profound cleansing which is the washing away of our sins.
The sacraments use these earthly actions which become signs of a much deeper heavenly action. Each sacrament has its own action such as the priest stretching his hand out to indicate forgiveness, or the vows a couple make at the moment of their marriage, or the laying on of hands and anointing of those who are being confirmed. These human actions and gestures are transformed by God into channels of his grace and love.
The Church understands that since we are bodily creatures we need these earthly actions as concrete signs of God’s love. That is why the liturgy is full of such signs and symbols. It is why we sing, why we use incense, and why the priests wear gorgeous vestments. It is why we have statues around us and why our Churches are highly decorated. It is why we use genuflections and why we make the Sign of the Cross and why we light candles.
Some Christian denominations have abandoned these things. If you go into a Presbyterian or Calvinist Church you will see no statues, the music will be very low key. There will be not much in the way of vestments, there will be few candles and certainly nothing resembling incense. Everything about their Churches will be austere and plain and stripped back. It therefore no surprise that these very Churches have also abandoned the sacraments or significantly reduced them to just two.
It is not for us to criticise them, they are finding their own way and trying to do their best to please God. But in the Catholic Church we understand that we live in the body and that signs and actions are the way we understand the world and the things of heaven. In the Church ordinary actions are invested with supernatural meaning and beauty is regarded as an important way of bringing us closer to God.
So we see the sacraments as not merely the actions of a priest or other minister but as a significant intervention of God into our world. We realise that when we celebrate the sacraments we get a glimpse of heaven. In the sacraments we understand that the mundane is turned into the divine. In the sacraments we realise that God is in our midst. Whenever we celebrate the sacraments we realise that we are at that very moment standing on holy ground.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket