Last Sunday, on the Feast of the Epiphany, we heard Matthew’s account of the Magi from the East. In that event, Jesus was revealed to the larger world as “the newborn king of the Jews.” (Matthew 2:2) Today, as we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we have another kind of epiphany.
Mark’s Gospel does not begin with the stories of Jesus’ birth. Mark opens with the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John. If less concerned with the details of Jesus’ birth, Mark is very interested in Jesus’ identity. He offers us this terse but powerful epiphany of an adult Jesus at His baptism. As He is baptized, Jesus has a vision of the heavens and hears a voice say “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The importance of Jesus’ identity as God’s Son is reiterated at the moment of Jesus’ death when the centurion exclaims: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)
It is interesting to note that Mark’s account of the Baptism does not specify whether anyone but Jesus sees the vision or hears the voice. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples of Jesus never seem to understand his identity. Nevertheless, we the readers see and hear. We now know at the outset that Jesus is the Son of God. It remains for the Gospel to spell out the meaning of that identity. Even more importantly, the passage makes very clear that it is God who identifies of the Son. Jesus will go forth from this crucial revelatory moment to the temptation in the desert and then immediately into His ministry and His mission to suffer and die for the redemption of the world.
This fact that God does the choosing offers us a unifying aspect of the readings for this feast. In each, the emphasis is upon God’s action and God’s choice.
The passage from Second Isaiah is one of several oracles regarding a servant of the Lord. Scholars disagree on the precise identity of this figure. Most likely, the figure represents Israel itself or some remnant of Israel. Nevertheless, Christians have long seen this figure as a prophetic foreshadowing of Christ. Apart from the identity of the servant, Isaiah makes clear that it is God who chooses the servant and God who gives the spirit so that the servant may accomplish God’s plan of justice and compassion. The emphasis is upon the gracious action of God. The responsorial taken from Psalm 29 joyfully acclaims the majesty and sovereignty of this saving God.
In the passage from Acts, Peter is in the house of the devout Cornelius, a Gentile who desires baptism. Peter has been hesitant about the place of Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation. Now Peter realizes that just as God chose and anointed Jesus, so God chooses Cornelius and his household for salvation, and Peter baptizes them. God’s justice is indeed going forth to the nations just as Isaiah prophesied.
In today’s feast we remember and rejoice in the Baptism of the Lord Jesus. He is revealed to us as the true Son of God. We rejoice in the action of God in bringing salvation to humankind through His beloved Son. And we remember that we too have been baptized. God’s choice of Jesus is a choice for our good as well. In Jesus, we too are beloved children of God.
It is our custom as we pass through the doors of our churches and bless ourselves with the holy water to recall the blessing of our baptism. On this Sunday, the Scripture passages and the feast invite us to recognize the action and the call of God. In our baptism, God chose each of us for a life of faith. On this Sunday, and every day, God chooses us to take our part in the gracious plan of salvation for God’s people and all the nations. We may not feel up to the task, but the mark of God’s choice is upon us and God’s Spirit empowers us to be a light for the nations. In that Spirit we join Mark’s centurion in acclaiming Jesus as the true Son of God.