The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is the last day of the Christmas season in the Catholic liturgical calendar. Tomorrow, we plunge back into Ordinary Time, where we will stay until Ash Wednesday, which is early this year: February 10. But there is some overlap. Although this is the last day of Christmastide, and tomorrow begins the first week in Ordinary Time, next Sunday isn’t called the first Sunday in OT, but the second — I suppose that’s so that weeks will take their number from the Sunday that begins them. More significantly, as I noted last week, Epiphany includes three events: the visit of the Magi, which was the focus last week, the Baptism of Jesus, and the wedding feast at Cana. Today, we get the Baptism; what about Cana? It’s the gospel passage next Sunday, the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time!
Speaking of overlap, today’s readings carry us back to Advent and Christmas. The first reading — Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11 — is read at Mass on the second Tuesday of Advent. Classical Music fans will also recognize parts of it as furnishing texts for Handel’s “Messiah.” And even though this precise passage isn’t read on a Sunday, the promise of Jerusalem’s restoration and joy and the coming of the Lord is a familiar Advent theme. The second reading — Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7 — combines the second reading from the Midnight and Dawn Masses of Christmas. The gospel — Luke 3:15-16, 21-22 — includes two verses from the passage about John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-18) that was read on the third Sunday of Advent this year.
Our first reading contains nothing that seems to refer specifically to Jesus’ baptism by John. But there is a connection at a more basic level. There is a hymn which begins with the lines, “When Jesus comes to be baptized/ He leaves the hidden years behind.” Jesus’ Baptism was the beginning of his public ministry. Up until then he had been living quietly as the carpenter’s son in Nazareth. After the Baptism, he fasts in the desert and then begins to go about proclaiming the kingdom of God. In that way, the Baptism was the moment, after his incarnation and birth, when he began to actively fulfill this prophecy. This is the moment when it becomes possible to say to all, “Here is your God.” This is the moment when he enters on the work of feeding his flock.
The responsorial psalm — Ps 29:1-2, 3ac-4, 3b&9b-10 with 11b as the refrain — has a theme of giving God glory and praise; but the refrain puts it all in the context of the blessing of peace which corresponds to the opening and final verses of the first reading. The verse about the voice of the Lord over the waters is clearly a reference to the scene at the end of the gospel, which means that it works best when we are already aware of the gospel accounts of the Baptism and thinking at least generally of the feast of the day.
Both parts of the second reading begin with a reference to an appearance (that is manifestation or epiphany, we might say) of the “grace of God,” the “kindness and generous love of God our Savior.” These are two ways of saying essentially the same thing. And this appearance happened in one way at Jesus’ birth but much more fully in the public ministry he began with his Baptism. It is fulfilled in his death and resurrection, which then is brought into our lives at our baptism — the “bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” which “deliver[s] us from all lawlessness and … cleanse[s] for himself a people as his own.” Our rebirth and cleansing is then brought to completion in our resurrection at his final appearance at the end of time.
The gospel begins with John’s acknowledgement that he is not the Messiah. The Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. St. Cyril of Jerusalem says that the fire is the tongues of fire which accompanied the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:3) and that this is what Jesus meant when he said that he had come to cast fire upon the earth and wished that it were kindled (Luke 12:49). Luke does not dwell on the actual Baptism but on the immediate aftermath. As Jesus prays, the Holy Spirit descends on him with a visible manifestation in the form of a dove, and the Father audibly pronounces Jesus his beloved son with whom he is well pleased. Is is traditional to speak of this descent of the Holy Spirit as an anointing — the anointing of Jesus which made him God’s anointed one: Messiah, as we anglicize the Hebrew word for it, or Christ, as we anglicize the Greek. This is why Jesus did not begin his ministry until after his Baptism: it was only then that he was anointed with the Holy Spirit to undertake the ministry.
We believe that this gospel account shows us what happens at our baptism. God pronounces us his children by adoption and sends the Holy Spirit (symbolized by anointing with the sacred chrism) to anoint us for our share in Jesus’ ministry of spreading the Kingdom of God.