January 8, 2017
Baptism of Jesus
The Gospel passage that is heard on this feast of the Baptism of Jesus (Mt 3: 13-17) is divided into two parts: in the first, there is the actual baptism (v. 13-15), in the second, (v. 16-17) there is an epiphany, a manifestation of God.
Yet this twofold scene is very eloquent, and we will keep it in the background, as a key to understanding this event: because the first moment is a movement of descent, of abasement, of humiliation; the second, on the contrary, is an experience of glory, of rising, of opening. It is the same dynamic of Easter, a death and resurrection dynamic.
Let’s begin with the first moment.
Jesus approaches John and asks him to be baptized. Matthew is the only one who tells us of John’s reluctance to baptize Jesus and His answer on righteousness: Let it be so now, for it is fitting that we fulfill all righteousness. (v. 15).
John’s reluctance is very strong: he wanted to prevent Jesus being baptized, because he did not consider the act right. John’s logic would have wanted that it bring to fulfillment his own task, to prepare the way for the Messiah, and this man instead, once he arrived, takes the situation in hand and resolutely fulfills his mission. A mission, as we have just seen in Advent, done with ax, fire, and winnowing fan (cf. Mt 3:12). It could not be – according to John – that God would debase himself in front of man: it is man who must debase himself before God. It is I who need to be baptized by you, and you are coming to me? (14).
Here, however, we have the first complete reversal of expectations and it surprises, baffles and irritates: Jesus, the Messiah and the Son of God, the Savior, who gets in line with sinners in order to receive forgiveness of sins and a baptism of conversion… Something that John could not understand.
Later, we will find something similar at the time during the Last Supper, when, according to the Gospel of John (13.1 ff), Jesus, as in our passage, strips himself and performs an equally bewildering gesture as the washing of the disciples’ feet. In that case it will be the apostle Peter, like the Baptist now, who finds it so hard to accept this logic.
Jesus, entering adult life, entering history, chooses to do it in a new way. In the humble and united manner that he puts himself close to man’s way, to his effort, his sin and at the same time also to his desire for conversion, to his need for salvation. Jesus chooses to start from there: he goes to look for man where man is. This, according to Jesus, fulfills righteousness.
We saw a few Sundays ago, in the episode of the annunciation to Joseph (Mt 1:18-25), how important is the term righteousness. Joseph was just not because he scrupulously observed the law, but because he listened to the will of God; a will of God that is always in favor of man’s salvation.
And so in our passage: the law’s righteousness would have wanted that Jesus, not being a sinner, would stay far from sinners. The new righteousness, that of the Kingdom, which Jesus fulfills, wants only man’s salvation and to save him he sides with him, he goes to meet him.
Let it be so now, for it is fitting that we fulfill all righteousness (v.15): in Matthew, these are the first words of Jesus. Important and programmatic words, which tell the entire orientation of Jesus, his mission, which is to fulfill only the Will of the Father. And which closely recall the first words uttered by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: why did you search for me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business? (Lk 2:49). Words that were also spoken in the presence of two puzzled interlocutors, Mary and Joseph.
In Matthew then righteousness is fulfilled not when you observe, but when somehow you exceed, when you go beyond righteousness itself, to enter the space of gratuitousness and love.
And it’s what Jesus does, declaring himself to be immediately available to an excess of love. The baptism account is the first declaration of love to the man.
To Jesus’ excess the Father’s excess responds, and we are in the second scene.
Equally unexpected and surprising, like the act of Jesus, and equally gratuitous.
While Jesus shows himself in the history of man, speaking his love to him, the Father shows himself in the history of Jesus doing the same, expressing his love to him: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased (v.17). They are words of tenderness that we are not so used to hearing, and that for the first time resound on earth in a human heart, said by God to a creature of flesh. A creature, Jesus, completely available to accept them.
So, when this happens, it is clear – it is just – that everything is renewed and fulfilled: the Spirit hovers over the waters again, as at the beginning of creation; finally man’s desire is realized, that again the heavens may tear apart (Is 63:7 – 64:11) and God can descend to guide His people in a new exodus to freedom.
In all this, the role of John is essential, that he lets it be (v.15). This is the task of the disciple: to follow the Lord in his excessive righteousness; letting it be always, even when this righteousness will lead Jesus to give His life for us; to then see that thus the heavens are opened and a new history begins, a new creation.