By Fr. Robert M. Powers
We conclude the Christmas season with a magnificent epiphany. We no longer end the season with last Sunday’s Epiphany of the Lord, the shining forth of the divine presence to the Magi at Bethlehem. We close with another epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord. And the recipient of this epiphany is Jesus Himself.
John the Baptist was perplexed by the participation of Jesus in the baptism of repentance. But in His baptism, the sinless Jesus experienced profoundly the inner life of the triune God of whom He was eternally the Second Person.
The elements of divine life all emerged and converged in that revelation in the river: the voice of God, the Father, with a simple message of paternal love; the dove hovering above Jesus, the Holy Spirit, that distinct bond of love between Father and Son that is also the Trinity’s Third Person; and the Word of God, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, a 30-year-old man, taking in this divine phenomenon in all of its richness.
In today’s selection from the Acts of the Apostle, Peter briefly states what happened at this epiphany: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.”
The epiphany in the Jordan did not add a divine dimension to Jesus’ identity; He was always divine. Nor was His baptism the initial revelation to Jesus of His unique identity as fully divine and fully human; He referred to that at age 12 when He said to His parents in the temple, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
The anointing of Jesus was, nevertheless, quite significant for Him. It was for Him a mystery of light, appropriately now celebrated by the Church as the First Luminous Mystery of the Rosary.
Jesus’ baptism did not represent a sudden, abrupt change in His life. The three decades which preceded His baptism were a rich preparation for this pivotal event. Mary and Joseph taught their Son fidelity to God, His Father, by word and example. His education by the rabbis of His village and His own reading and reflection upon Holy Scripture enabled Him to hear the voice of God. He was inspired by the Psalms and the prophets, especially Isaiah.
No doubt the age, wisdom and grace in which the Son of God grew up at Nazareth are shrouded in mystery and cannot be explained entirely by His home life and education. His upbringing within the Holy Family was not unlike the upbringing of any faithful family. At what point He began to pray to God as Abba or Daddy we do not know, but intimacy with God was there long before his baptism.
Nevertheless, the anointing with the Spirit at baptism was a unique moment in Jesus’ life. The experience called for a retreat of 40 days in the desert, where not only would He be tested with temptations, but where He would also allow that experience in the Jordan to permeate Him. He faced painful challenges in His three-year ministry: rejection by neighbors at Nazareth; slander by the scribes and Pharisees; abandonment by the crowds who scoffed at His message that eating His body and drinking His blood were essential for eternal life; Apostles who were cowardly and slow to comprehend His words; His Passion and crucifixion.
His baptism remained with Him throughout the last three years of His life, affording Him much consolation and strength. The baptismal event was ever present in the prayer life of Jesus, as so many verses in St. John’s Gospel demonstrate.
Today’s solemnity reminds us that our baptism in Jesus Christ offers us the opportunity to share in that epiphany in the Jordan. Preparation is required for us to experience the shining forth of God’s love. We need family life that regularly renews itself as the domestic Church, a place which is always open to the direction of the Holy Spirit. We need to remain steadfast in prayer that is always open to epiphany.
We also need to be people who practice the memory of epiphany. Our remembrance of the Last Supper together with the presence of the Holy Spirit bring about the miracle of transubstantiation at every Mass.
As individuals we also need to remember in our daily prayer the times in our lives when God has given us epiphanies. Like the Virgin Mary, we are called to treasure these events in our hearts and to continue to meditate upon them. Like the shepherds who went forth from the stable in Bethlehem to announce the birth of the newborn Christ and then returned there to experience His presence again, we too must return to our own experiences of epiphany.
Like Jesus of Nazareth, we need to revisit again and again the message that has been imparted to us through our baptism in Him: We are all beloved sons and daughters of the Father in whom He is well pleased.
Readings for the Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7 or Isaiah 55: 1-11
Psalm 29: 1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10 or Isaiah 12: 2-3, 4BCD, 5-6
Acts 10: 34-38 or 1 John 5: 1-9 Mark 1: 7-11
Father Robert M. Powers is the pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, Long Island City, and the Catholic chaplain at LaGuardia Community College.