First Reading: Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7
Responsorial Psalm: 29: 1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10
Second Reading: Acts 10: 34-38
Gospel: Matthew 3: 13-17
A Dream Comes True
With this Sunday celebrating the baptism of Jesus, the church turns from the Christmas season to “Ordinary Time” — the long stretch of Sundays reflecting on the mission of Jesus until we reach Lent.
The focus is on the remarkable beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. There is no doubt that John the Baptist was a formidable historical figure. This was a time of great chaos and disillusionment in Jewish history — with the country’s unity still shattered by civil war, with accusations of corruption against the Jerusalem temple establishment, and with Roman troops and a Roman governor ruling over the central province of Judea and its capital Jerusalem. Out of the chaos and anguish rose a powerful prophetic voice, that of John the Baptist. He called his fellow Jews to renew their lives and their fidelity to the God of Israel. Alert to the power of symbolism, John went to the edge of the desert where ancient Israel had emerged from its slavery in Egypt. There he initiated a ritual of repentance, calling people to be reborn by plunging in the Jordan River, the desert stream their ancestors had crossed over into the promised land.
In the mystery of God’s providence, a young man some 90 miles away from John’s desert pulpit, must have been deeply moved by prophet’s call for repentance and renewal. Jesus, the Gospel of Matthew tells us, came from his home in Nazareth of Galilee to undergo John’s ritual and to rededicate himself to his Father. The Gospel does not attempt to speculate about Jesus’ interior thoughts at this moment but we can surmise that in the mystery of his human consciousness, John’s dramatic call must have triggered in Jesus a realization that God was calling him to begin a demanding new life, a call to restore Israel, a call to heal, to teach, to confront the power of evil.
The Gospel suffuses the scene of Jesus’ baptism with the very presence of God. As Jesus comes up out of the waters of the Jordan, the heavens split open, the Spirit of God envelopes him, and God’s own voice acclaims Jesus as “my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Before the drama of Jesus’ public ministry begins to unfold, the Gospel reveals to us who Jesus is. As we heard in the gospel reading for the Sunday before Christmas, he bears the name “Jesus,” the Savior of the World; he is “Emmanuel,” God-with-us.
The lectionary readings for today frame this inaugural moment with two other powerful readings. The first is from the prophet Isaiah. Here, in eloquent terms, the prophet dreams of God’s liberating messiah who is indeed God’s “chosen one,” who “will bring forth justice to the nations…” who will be “a light for the nations” and “open the eyes of the blind, to bring prisoners from confinement” and “liberate from the dungeon those who live in darkness.”
The second reading from the Acts of the Apostles propels us in time beyond the mission of Jesus to that of the early church animated by the power of Jesus’ resurrection. This passage is taken from the famous encounter of Peter with the Roman centurion Cornelius at Caesarea Maritima, the seat of Roman power in Judea, where the leader of the apostles baptizes the first Gentile convert. Moved by the spirit and example of Jesus (“who went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil”), Peter realizes “…that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to God.” The biblical dream of justice and peace for all nations expressed by Isaiah, is now being realized in the liberating mission of Jesus and in the courageous work of his followers.
The celebration of Jesus’ baptism invites us to think about the consequences of our own baptism. Through baptism, we, too, are suffused with the same Spirit of God. We, too, are called to dream of justice and healing for all — not just to dream but to enact that dream in the everyday circumstances of our lives.
Rev. Donald Senior, CP
President Emeritus, Chancellor
Professor of New Testament
Adapted with permission from Donald Senior’s weekly column, “Perspectives on Scripture” that appears in the Chicago Catholic archdiocesan newspaper.