January 13, 2019
THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
First Servant Song
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
Call to return home
Psalm 29:1-4, 3, 9-10
Voice of the Lord over the waters
Psalm 104:1-4, 24-25, 27-30
Waters of Creation
Peter’s speech at Cornelius’ household
Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7
Teaching the Christian Life
Luke 3:15-16. 21-22
John’s baptism with water
Unlike the feast of Epiphany of last week, in which the readings were so appropriate that no alternatives could be imagined, nor were ever proposed, this week’s celebration of the baptism of John is rife with choices. It might be useful to survey the lot to see how they contribute to the feast.
The Old Testament readings are both from the writings of Second-Isaiah, the prophet of the Babylonian exile. As with each of the choices today, the first is the traditional reading for the feast. Isaiah 42:1-7 is the first of the songs of the Suffering Servant. This figure is applied to Jesus in the gospels, and the first instance is at his baptism. As today, the voice from heaven combines Psalm 2:7, a passage about the Messiah-king, with this verse about the Servant. The daunting task of Jesus is to fulfill both promises, being Messiah, but in the manner of the Servant.
Tbe alternative reading is also from Second Isaiah, in fact the first passage in that part of the book attributed to him. It announces the end of the exile. It too figures into the feast, since the gospels use this passage to introduce John, as the voice crying out in the desert. In Luke’s version, as we saw this past Second Sunday of Advent, the quotation is extended to include a matter of Luke’s concern, “Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”
A word about the Response Psalms—Psalm 29 is an ancient psalm, which pictures a storm crossing northern Israel from west to east, from the sea to the desert, imagined as the voice of the Lord. We have the part about crossing over the waters. The other response, Psalm 104, is a hymn of praise of God as Creator, who tamed the waters to “fertilize and feed the earth,” as noted in the footnotes of the New American Bible, which we use for the liturgy.
The reading from Acts 10 is from the account of Peter’s vision declaring all foods clean, so as to allow the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household to join with Jewish Christians at meals. The part we have for today is a part of Peter’s proclamation to Cornelius. It emphasizes the baptism of John, making the point that what is being revealed to Peter was part of the plan from the very beginning. Again we are reminded of Luke’s theme of reaching out to the Gentile world.
A treatise on the Christian life, the letter to Titus details aspects of the new pattern of life. In its second part, it links it to the gracious invitation of God, sacramentally given in baptism.
We have only one choice for the gospel reading. But it is divided into two parts, skipping over the instructions to the individual parties asking how they should respond. This was given to us on the Third Sunday of Advent. In the two parts we have for today, we begin with the witness of John to the coming greater baptism. He baptizes with water, but the One to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. We are looking ahead to the book of Acts.
In the second part of the gospel reading, we are told of Jesus being baptized. The account is similar to those of Mark and Matthew. Later, when Jesus begins his ministry in the synagogue of Nazareth, he will speak of this as the Holy Spirit coming upon him (Luke 4:18).
For reflection: The scriptures for today might help us understand our own baptism.
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.