First Reading: Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7
Behold my servant, I will uphold him: my elect, my soul delights in him: I have given my spirit upon him, he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not cry, nor have respect to person, neither shall his voice be heard abroad. The bruised reed he shall not break, and smoking flax he shall not quench, he shall bring forth judgment unto truth. He shall not be sad, nor troublesome, till he set judgment in the earth, and the islands shall wait for his law.
I the Lord have called you in justice, and taken you by the hand, and preserved you. And I have given you for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles: That you might open the eyes of the blind, and bring forth the prisoner out of prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.
Second Reading: Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7
For the grace of God our Saviour has appeared to all men: Instructing us, that, denying ungodliness and worldly desires, we should live soberly and justly and godly in this world, looking for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ. Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity and might cleanse to himself a people acceptable, a pursuer of good works.
But when the goodness and kindness of God our Saviour appeared: Not by the works of justice which we have done, but according to his mercy, he saved us, by the laver of regeneration and renovation of the Holy Ghost. Whom he has poured forth upon us abundantly, through Jesus Christ our Saviour: That, being justified by his grace, we may be heirs according to hope of life everlasting.
Gospel: Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
And as the people were of opinion, and all were thinking in their hearts of John, that perhaps he might be the Christ. John answered, saying unto all: "I indeed baptize you with water; but there shall come one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to loose. He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire;”
Now it came to pass, when all the people were baptized, that Jesus also being baptized and praying, heaven was opened. And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape, as a dove, upon him. And a voice came from heaven: You are my beloved Son. In you I am well pleased.
This week’s reading posses a great mystery; Jesus Christ, who neither did, nor could commit a sin, steps forward to be baptized for repentance.
But the emphasis this time around is not on the seeming-contradiction of why Jesus came forward (that is explored in Matthew’s Gospel), but on the meaning of what happened. John says that Jesus will baptize “with the Holy Spirit.” Then, after Jesus is baptized, “Heaven was opened and the Holy spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”
There’s a lot to take home here. For one thing, John explicitly says that Jesus will baptize ‘with the Holy Spirit,’ clearly indicating that he, John, cannot do that. So, when the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus following his baptism, what is happening there is that Jesus is perfecting John’s baptism by adding the crucial ‘ingredient’ of the Holy Spirit.
This is interesting; we talk a lot about how Jesus sanctified human life by taking it on, and how by His specific actions He made especially holy certain events or stages of life: i.e. He sanctified marriage both by declaring it to be ordained by God and by His presence at the wedding feast at Cana. Now, baptism wasn’t, at this point, a typical experience of human life, but the importance of the Sacrament is underlined in the fact that this is one of those times that the sanctification of the event is illustrated by visual and audible signs. The Holy Spirit descends upon Christ and, at the same time, the site of the baptism. Thus the Holy Spirit has been added to the process of baptism, sanctifying and perfecting the process.
There’s also the line “Heaven was opened.” We believe, as Christians, that Baptism is the path to Heaven; no one enters Heaven without first being Baptized (look for a future post on how this does not necessarily exclude non-Christians). Now, John’s baptism did not have the power to save; he admitted as much himself. It was divinely ordained, and was for the repentance of sin, but it could not itself let anyone enter Heaven. When Jesus passes through, however, “Heaven is opened.” Baptism is given a salvific character by Christ’s actions.
Finally, Christ’s baptism and the subsequent opening of Heaven foreshadows His passion and resurrection. Baptism is a symbol of resurrection; the subject enters the waters as if entering a tomb and re-emerges with new life. Water itself is a means to death and life: we drown if we remain underneath it, but nothing on Earth can survive without it (thus, the salvific nature of baptism, of water, is foreshadowed in the very nature of life itself). When Christ enters the ‘tomb’ of the Jordan River, He is anticipating the tomb that He will enter after Calvary, when Heaven will once again be opened.
At the beginning and end of His public ministry, therefore, Jesus opens Heaven to us. Heaven being ‘opened’ is the result of His presence and work on Earth, and so is heralded by this very earliest event in His public life. From the moment Jesus enters the stage, Heaven has begun to open.
Vive Christus Rex!