By Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
That is the mystery with which the Gospel reading for this solemnity presents us. Mark’s Gospel tells us how “John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and how people “of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.” Matter-of-factly, the evangelist tells us how “It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John.” What could have led Jesus to the banks of the Jordan River?
The evangelist seems unbothered by this, even while telling us how John announced: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
What seems to have left Mark unperturbed preoccupied Matthew and Luke quite a lot. Scholars recognize that Mark’s Gospel was the earliest and that both Matthew and Luke relied on Mark for their own Gospels’ narrative outline. For that reason, these three are called the “Synoptic” Gospels. As for John’s Gospel, scholars remain undecided about whether John knew of the Synoptic Gospels. After telling us that “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him,” Matthew puts the obvious objection on the Baptist’s lips, explaining how “John tried to prevent him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?’”
Jesus replies, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:14-15), and only then does John immerse him in the waters of the Jordan. The Baptizer’s words disclose the awkwardness of the moment, cognizant as he is that Jesus is the mightier one “who will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
In Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism, we read that “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened” (Luke 3:21). Luke seems to rush right past Jesus’ baptism, focusing instead on what happens after Jesus emerges from the Jordan’s waters. John’s Gospel does not even mention Jesus’ baptism at all. Instead, the evangelist tells us that when John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
What becomes clear as we compare the Gospels is that even over the course of the few decades of the first century that separate the earliest Gospel (Mark) from the latest (John), there is an ever-increasing emphasis on the distinctiveness of Jesus as the Son of God. When Jesus comes to the Jordan, there is no indication that John recognizes him. After his baptism, Mark’s Gospel tells us that it is only Jesus who sees the Holy Spirit descend upon him like a dove, only Jesus who hears a heavenly voice saying, “you are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.” Mark doesn’t say whether John the Baptist or any of those gathered at the Jordan saw or heard anything at all, yet the evangelist gives us the privilege of knowing that Jesus is God’s beloved Son by sharing with us what Jesus saw and heard.
In John’s Gospel, written just a few decades after Mark’s testimony of Jesus, we read how John the Baptist declared, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God” (John 1:32-34). As Christians, we profess faith in the full humanity and the full divinity of Jesus. The truth of the incarnation means that Jesus did not merely appear to be human. Baptized in the Jordan’s waters like so many others, God’s eternal Son became truly human in all things but sin, so fully human that it was only by a gift of divine revelation that John the Baptist could recognize him as Son of God. As we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, may we give thanks that God’s own beloved Son immersed himself completely in our human condition so that by the grace of our baptism, we might receive the awesome gift of eternal life.
Readings for The Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 or Is 55:1-11
Psalm 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.