The beginning of Jesus' ministry
Jesus is the true servant chosen by God to carry out his mission
January 13, 2002, Baptism of the Lord
By Fr. Richard Ver Bust
Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord as a transition between the Christmas season and the Sundays of the Year. The feast of the Baptism serves as a completion of the epiphany or manifestation of God among us and looks forward to the whole story of Jesus.
The feast celebrates the event as the beginning of Jesus' ministry. It emphasizes that God was with Jesus and the event was in a sense a commissioning of his work.
The first reading gives us a reflection on what this means. The book of the prophet Isaiah tells us that God will provide a servant who is pleasing to him to lead Israel. It is the first of four passages that describe this servant. They are appropriately called the Servant Songs. This mysterious figure can be described as collectively the people of Israel or as a specific person.
The servant will be filled with God's spirit to carry out his mission. It emphasizes that this person is specifically chosen by God. The mission or work of the servant is one that is determined by God as well. The mission will be carried out in a fashion that is gentle and kind. There is a sense that while he will bring salvation and comfort to Israel, the whole world will know God's saving work.
The second reading from the Acts of the Apostles is a summary statement of the early preaching as given by Peter to the household of the gentile Cornelius. It emphasizes the Baptism of Jesus by John and sees it as a form of anointing by the Holy Spirit. The coming of the Spirit is reminiscent of the Spirit given to other leading figures in Israel's history such as the judges, kings and prophets. Since this is part of the story in which the message of good news is first given to the gentiles, we can see it as part of a universalistic message of salvation as well. Jesus' ministry is described as doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil.
The description of the Baptism itself is part of the passage we hear in today's gospel reading. It is preceded by a conversation between John the Baptizer and Jesus. We are not told how John recognized Jesus but it does describe the fact that John hesitated to baptize Jesus and recognizes Jesus' superiority. Might this be a reflection of Matthew's desire to point out to those who still follow John that the Baptizer accepted Jesus as the future leader?
The Baptism itself is not specifically described but it is alluded to. It is also interesting that in Matthew's version of the event it seems only Jesus heard and saw the revelation of the Spirit and the voice of God. It is important to note that Jesus is the recipient of the power of the Spirit. The Spirit is described as coming in the form of a dove. This, of course, may indicate the gentleness of Jesus' ministry or since the dove is a symbol of the people of Israel that Jesus is the new Israel. One author has suggested that the form, which the Spirit adopts, may indicate what is being accomplished. Matthew's choice of the words spoken by God indicates that he believes Jesus is the true servant as once described by Isaiah. We see today God's salvation at work in Jesus.
(Fr. Ver Bust holds the title of professor emeritus in religious studies at St. Norbert College, De Pere.)