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Today’s Gospel opens with a significant finding, “the people were in expectation.” It is easy to imagine what they are waiting for: the slave expected freedom, the poor a new condition of life, the exploited laborer hoped for justice, the sick healing, and the humiliated and raped woman the recovery of dignity. All aspired a new world; they hoped that among people abuses, distortions, mistreatment would disappear and rapports of peace installed.
The people cultivated hope of change especially in the religious field perhaps not entirely conscious of it.
For three hundred years, the voice of the prophets was turned off. Heaven was closed and the silence of God was considered a well-deserved punishment for sins committed. The images of God as faithful ally, loving father, gentle husband, was put aside and the spiritual guides began to present the Lord especially as a strict and uncompromising legislator. Religion did not communicate joy, but anxiety, fear, anguish. Such an unbearable life called for something to change! Here are the reasons for waiting to which the Baptist had to give an answer.
When one lives in insupportable situations and ardently craves for something to change he relies on anyone who inspires some hope. However, one can also be fooled in identifying the liberator. The people of Israel who—as Jesus will one day say—was a flock without a shepherd (Mk 6:34) expecting from the Lord a guide and thinking the Baptist to be the Messiah. John corrects them: not me—he says—“one stronger than me is about to come. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire … . He comes with a winnowing fan to clear his threshing floor and gather the grain into his barn. But the chaff he will burn with fire that never goes out” (Lk 3:17). Earlier he said that “the axe is already laid to the root of the trees” (Lk 3:9). The judgment of God is imminent and it will be severe.
The language of the Baptist is hard and threatening, in line with the one used by some prophets. Malachi spoke of a “day flaming as a furnace. Then all the proud and all those who commit injustice shall be stubble; that day is coming and they will be burned” (Mal 3:19). Isaiah also threatened: “Broad and deep is its fire pit, piled up with dry grass and wood. The breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, will set it ablaze” (Is 30:33)
One cannot but notice the stark contrast between these terrifying images and the sweet and delicate expressions with which, in the first reading, the figure of the “servant of the Lord is presented.” There was no talk of violence, intolerance, aggression, destructive fire, but of patience and respect towards all, help to those in need, recovery of a broken reed, of hope for who is like a fumigant wick.
The Baptist’s words reflect the mentality of a people that the spiritual leaders have educated in the fear of God. Like everyone else, he too believed that injustice and sin had reached the ridge and that God’s solving intervention against the wicked was imminent.
He was right: with the coming of Christ, there would be no escape for evil. But on how God would cleanse the world of sin, the kind of fire that he would use … perhaps the Baptist was mistaken. We do not know exactly what he had in mind. We know rather well how Jesus acted: he did not attack sinners instead sat down to dinner with them; he has not strayed from the lepers instead he touched them; he did not condemn the adulteress but defended her against those who judged and despised her; he has not driven the sinful woman but let her caress and kiss him.
Jesus has permanently closed the era in which God was imagined as a sovereign, severe, uncompromising executioner. He revealed the true face of God, the God who saves only. With his life, he projected a light also on the impressive images used by the Baptist and the prophets and has given the key to reading it. What they had said was true: God would send his fire on the earth, but not to destroy his children (though wicked), but to burn, to delete from everyone’s heart every form of evil.
This thought leads us to the second part of today’s Gospel (vv. 21-22).
At first glance, the story of Jesus’ baptism seems identical to that of the other evangelists. Actually, it presents some different and meaningful details. Above all, unlike the others, Luke does not describe the baptism of Jesus but speaks of it as a fact that has already taken place (v. 21). Clearly, for him the center of the story is not the baptism itself, but what happens immediately after: the opening of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit and, above all, the voice from heaven.
We are at the beginning of the public life and the evangelist wants the Christians of his community—that have already been baptized—to read the Gospel as addressed directly to them. He invites them to begin the route, to move their still unsure steps behind the Master who was baptized like them and walks beside them.
Then, only Luke notes that Jesus was immersed in the Jordan together with all the people. He is mistaken in the crowd. This is particularly stressed because, from the beginning of his mission, Jesus presents himself as the one who starts alongside the sinners. He does not judge nor rebuke them, not condemn, not despise them. He shares the condition of slavery and with them tread along the path that leads to freedom.
The third detail that appears only in Luke is the call to prayer. Jesus receives the Spirit while praying. The insistence on prayer is one of the characteristics of Luke. It is the first time that he presents Jesus in dialogue with the Father, later he will do it a dozen times more.
Jesus does not pray to give us a good example. He needs, like us, to find out what is the will of the Father; he needs to receive his light and strength to carry out at all times what is pleasing to him. He needs to pray now that he is in the stage in his mission; he will pray before choosing the apostles (Lk 6:12), before his passion (Lk 22:41) and pray, above all, on the cross (Lk 23:34,46) at the time of the most difficult test. To remain faithful to the Father, he needed to pray.
After this original introduction, Luke, like Matthew and Mark, describes the next scene with three images: the opening of the heavens, the dove, and the voice from heaven. He is not telling miraculous events that actually happened but uses images easily comprehensible to his readers. Their meaning is not difficult to grasp even for us today.
Let’s start with the opening of the sky.
This is not a meteorological information (between the thick and gloomy clouds, a bright and unexpected ray of sunshine would be filtered). If so Luke would have reported a really trivial detail and of no interest to our faith. What he wants to say to his readers is quite another. He is clearly alluding to a text of the Old Testament well-known to them.
In the last centuries before Christ, the people of Israel felt that the sky was closed. God, angry because of the sins and infidelities of his people, had retreated into his world. He had stopped sending prophets and seemed to have broken any dialogue with people. Pious Israelites wondered: When will this silence that distresses us, end? The Lord will not come back to talk to us; will he no longer show us his serene face, as in ancient times? They called upon him: “Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you our potter; we are the work of your hands. Do not let your anger go too far or think of our sins forever. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” (Is 64:7-8; 63:19).
Saying that, with the beginning of Jesus’ public life, the heavens are torn, Luke gives his readers a great, good news: God has heard the prayer of his people, has opened heaven and will never close it again. The enmity between heaven and earth is gone forever. The door of the Father’s house will eternally remain open to accommodate every child who wants to enter. Perhaps someone will arrive very late, but no one will be excluded.
The second image is that of the dove.
Luke does not say that a dove came down from heaven (this would also be a trivial and superfluous detail), but that the Holy Spirit descended “like a dove.”
The Baptist certainly remembers that from the sky not only manna but also the destructive water of flood (Gen 7:12), the fire and brimstone that incinerated Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24) came down. He probably expects the coming of the Spirit as a “devouring fire” of the wicked. The Spirit instead rests on Jesus as a “dove.” The Spirit is all tenderness, affection, and kindness. Moved by the Spirit, Jesus will approach sinners always with the gentleness and sweetness of the dove.
The dove was also a symbol of attachment to its nest. If the evangelist has this in mind, then he wants to tell us that the Spirit seeks Jesus as a dove seeks its nest. Jesus is the temple where the Spirit finds its permanent home.
The third image, the voice from heaven.
It is an expression used frequently by rabbis when they want to introduce a statement attributed to God. In our story, it is intended to present publicly, in the name of God, who Jesus is.
To understand the importance of the message of this voice, one must keep in mind that the passage was composed after the events of Easter and wants to answer the enigma provoked in the disciples by the ignominious death of the Master. In their eyes, he seemed to be a loser, an outcast and abandoned by the Lord. His enemies, guardians, and guarantors of the purity of the faith of Israel had condemned him a blasphemer. Has God shared this conviction?
To the Christians of his community, the evangelist presents the judgment of the Lord with a phrase that refers to three Old Testament texts.
“You are my son.” It is a quote of Psalm 2:7. In the Semitic culture, the term son did not indicate only the biological generation. It also implied the affirmation of a similarity, acting like the father. Presenting Jesus as “his son,” God guarantees to recognize himself in him, in his words, his gestures, in his works and in his supreme act of love, the gift of life. To know the Father people need not help but look at this child.
“The beloved.” This refers to the trial Abraham was subjected to. He was asked to offer his only and well beloved son, Isaac (Gen 22:2,12,16). By applying this title to Jesus, God invites us not to consider him a king or prophet like the others. He, like Isaac, is the only, the beloved Son.
“In you, I am well pleased.” We have already read this expression in the first verse of today’s reading (Is 42:1). God declares that Jesus is the “servant” of whom the prophet spoke. He is the one sent to “establish law and justice” in the world. To fulfill this mission he will offer his life.
The “voice from heaven” therefore limelights the judgment pronounced by people. It also denies the Messianic expectations of the people of Israel. A humiliated, beaten, executed Messiah was inconceivable for the Jewish culture of the time. In the house of the high priest, Peter swore of not knowing the man. He was basically telling the truth. He could not recognize in him the Messiah. He did not resemble anything to the expected savior of Israel narrated in the catechesis of the rabbis.
The fulfillment of the prophecies from God’s part has been too surprising for everyone, also for the Baptist.
On this Sunday after the Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, and we gratefully recall our Baptism.
The Gospel presents Jesus, in the waters of the River Jordan, at the centre of a wondrous divine revelation. St Luke writes: “when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased’” (Lk 3:21-22). In this way Jesus is consecrated and manifested by the Father as the Saviour Messiah and liberator.
In this event — attested by all four Gospels — is the passing from the baptism of John the Baptist, symbolized by water, to the Baptism of Jesus “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Lk 3:16). Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the principal artisan in Christian Baptism: it is he who burns and destroys original sin, restoring to the baptized the beauty of divine grace; it is he who frees us from the dominion of darkness, namely sin, and transfers us to the kingdom of light, namely love, truth and peace: this is the kingdom of light. Let us think about the dignity to which Baptism elevates us! “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are” (1 Jn 3:1), the Apostle John exclaims. This splendid reality of being Children of God entails the responsibility of following Jesus, the obedient Servant, and reproduces his lineaments in our very selves: namely docility, humility, tenderness. This is not easy, especially when there is so much intolerance, arrogance, harshness around us. But with the strength we receive from the Holy Spirit it is possible!
The Holy Spirit, received for the first time on the day of our Baptism, opens our heart to the Truth, to all Truth. The Spirit impels our life on the challenging but joyful path of charity and solidarity toward our brothers and sisters. The Spirit gives us the tenderness of divine forgiveness and permeates us with the invincible power of the Father’s mercy. Let us not forget that the Holy Spirit is a living and vivifying presence in those who welcome him, he prays in us and fills us with spiritual joy.
Today, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, let us ponder the day of our Baptism. All of us were baptized, let us give thanks for this gift. I ask you a question: which of you knows the date of your Baptism? Surely not everyone. Therefore, I encourage you to find out the date, by asking, for example, your parents, your grandparents, your godparents, or going to the parish. It is very important to know it, because it is a date to be celebrated: it is the date of our rebirth as Children of God. For this reason, homework for this week: go and find out the date of your Baptism. Celebrating that day means and reaffirms our adherence to Jesus, with the commitment to live as Christians, members of the Church and of a new humanity, in which all are brothers and sisters.
May the Virgin Mary, first Disciple of her Son Jesus, help us to live our Baptism with joy and apostolic zeal, welcoming each day the gift of the Holy Spirit, which makes us Children of God.