Monday, January 8, 2018

The Baptism of the Lord: An Icon of Grace

The Baptism of Christ by Tintoretto
Today we observe Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and so on the last day of the Christmas Season we celebrate the first event in the Public Ministry of Jesus.  All four Gospels tell of John’s baptism of Jesus, but all present a slightly different view.  Mark’s account is the sparest, except that he gives us the most vivid picture of John himself: "Now John was clothed with camel's hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey" (Mark 1:6).  Luke's account starts with the people "filled with expectation", eagerly anticipating the Messiah, whom they take John to be.  John’s Gospel recounts John the Baptist hailing Jesus with the title "Lamb of God".  They all tell of John’s recognition of himself as a merely the forerunner to Jesus, to whom he is inferior, but only Matthew records his reluctance to baptize the Lord:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. (Matthew 3:13-15)

John knows that Jesus, being sinless, requires no Baptism, but Jesus seeks it out in order to show his commitment to being one of us, and to demonstrate to us the path which we should follow.  In this account we see Jesus acting out what St. Paul tells the Phillipians:

. . . though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Phillipians 2:6-7)

In all the Gospels, we see the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus and the voice of the Father proclaim him to be the beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased.  And so Christ’s Public Ministry begins with an icon of all three Persons of the Trinity working together, and an image of Grace in action.  This scene sums up the meaning of the Nativity we have just celebrated, and tells us something about the agenda for the ministry that is begun.
 As always, there is more, which we see with particular emphasis in Matthew’s Gospel. We are reminded that it is all Grace, a word for which the Latin root gratia means not just favor, but favor freely bestowed (hence related English words “gratuity” and “gratis”); Grace is completely, absolutely, free. God needs nothing, nothing is necessary for Him: He does it all for us, He gives us a share in His own life, as a completely unnecessary gift.  Because He loves us.

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