Last week we celebrated the great feast of the Epiphany of the Lord which brought to completion the 12 days of the Christmas season. Epiphany is a Greek word which means manifestation or appearance. The appearance to the Magi signified the mission of our Lord to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews.
Today we celebrate another divine appearance. Today's feast commemorating the Baptism of the Lord marks the beginning of the public life of Jesus. In one week we've gone from the little babe in the manger to our Lord's appearance to John the Baptist at the Jordan river.
The first reading from the Book of the prophet Isaiah introduces a mighty figure:
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit;
These words find their counterpart in today's gospel. After the Baptism of Jesus,
Heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit
Descended upon Him
In bodily form like a dove
And a voice came from heaven,
‘You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased.’
Let's examine the scene of the Baptism a little more closely. First, Jesus comes to John to be baptized and John hesitates because he recognizes that someone far greater than he is standing before him. Nevertheless, Jesus insists on following the precepts of the Law since He is the one who will bring the Law to its fulfillment.
After the baptism we have the first manifestation of the Holy Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is unfortunate that over the years religious artists have found it almost impossible to depict the Holy Trinity. They have had remarkable success with the Son because Jesus did take on a human form. For the most part artists have had to resort to depicting the Father as a white-bearded old man--an angry one at that-- flying around in the sky. Even worse, they've depicted the Spirit as a bird, because today's gospel says that Jesus saw the Spirit descending "like a dove."
These images, well-intentioned as they are, have led to a lot of misunderstanding. We are made in the image and likeness of God. God is not made in our image and likeness. God is not an angry old man and the Holy Spirit is not a bird. Especially in the case of the Spirit, the image of the dove has led many to trivialize and underestimate His role.
Not only did God create the world, the world could not exist for an instant without the continued presence of His Holy Spirit. Every breath we take, every move we make is inconceivable without the presence of the Spirit of God. We're like fish swimming in the ocean but the ocean is the Spirit of God. Just like fish we don't realize that we're in the ocean and that every thing that sustains us comes from the ocean of God. We're even worse than fish because we think that we can do without the ocean. We can even, if we're smart enough, convince ourselves that it doesn't even exist.
St. Peter had no misunderstanding. Today's second reading from the Acts of the Apostles takes place after the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Even after those incredible events, Peter and many other Christians had difficulty in realizing that the word of God had come for all nations and not just for Israel. In this scene which ends in the house of the pagan convert, Cornelius, Peter finally realizes that "God shows no partiality." He then recalled the scene at the Baptism where it all began.
You know...what has happened all over Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the Baptism
that John preached,
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power.
From that day on the teaching of the Church has always been that our own Baptism is similar to our Lord's. At Baptism it's not just that the stain of original sin is washed away. We believe that at our Baptism we become children of God, and that we receive His Holy Spirit. In a way we should regard the day of our Baptism as the most important day of our life.
I know that there are those who do not attach much importance to the sacraments anymore. But at the outset of His public life Jesus, despite the objections of John the Baptist, attached great importance to His Baptism. He chose to have the waters flow over Him and to be anointed by the Father "with the Holy Spirit." At the outset of our own children's lives, why would we not choose to follow His example?
Reading 1. Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7
Reading II. Acts 10: 34-38
Gospel. Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22 (my beloved Son).