The feast of the Baptism of the Lord has a rather muted emphasis in the life of the Western Church. Coming in early January, it is dwarfed by the earlier celebrations of Christmas and even the Epiphany.
In our annual liturgical cycle, it is the end of the Christmas season. This is an unfortunate designation because the Baptism of the Lord is not an end, but the beginning. It is the beginning of the messianic era, the beginning of the new age of the Holy Spirit.
Some commentators have noted that in the chapters prior to Jesus' baptism, the Gospel of Luke is very Old Testament in character. The rituals, prayers and piety - even the mood - are drawn from Old Testament times. The Holy Spirit is presented as the Spirit of prophecy, rather than the Spirit that abides in the people. Even Jesus was not seen, by those who knew him best, as anyone exceptional.
With the baptism in the Jordan, everything changed. The heavens opened, the Spirit descended on Jesus in the bodily form of a dove and a voice from heaven declared, "You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3.22). All these features point to the baptism as being a pivotal event in salvation history.
In the Old Testament, the dove had been the symbol of Israel. That is so here too, but it is the new Israel, the Israel that embodies the Holy Spirit.
The appearance of the dove is also a sign that at the Jordan, we witness a new creation. It was the dove that Noah sent forth from the Ark that returned with the olive leaf to provide a clear sign that the waters of the Flood were receding (Genesis 8.10-12).
CNS PHOTO | GREGORY SHEMITZ
Christ's baptism by John at the Jordan River signalled new creation was happening.
Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation (Genesis 1.2), so now the dove hovers over the waters of the Jordan. In this we find the fulfillment of the psalmist's prayer: "When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth" (104.30).
At the Jordan, we see Jesus as the New Adam. Immediately following the baptism, Jesus, "full of the Holy Spirit," is sent into the desert for 40 days to face temptation. Before recounting the story of Jesus in the desert, St. Luke interposes the list of Jesus' ancestors from the time of Adam to ensure that we understand that he is the New Adam and that this is the new creation.
In the wilderness, Jesus faces the devil with a much different result than the old Adam. Scripture scholar James Dunn describes it this way: "Whereas at the beginning of the old creation, the first Adam was tempted and fell, at the beginning of the new creation, the second Adam is tempted but conquers."
While the gates of heaven were slammed shut by Adam's sin in the garden, they are now torn asunder by the sending of the Spirit upon Jesus at the Jordan. What a beautiful image! Here is the fulfillment of Isaiah's imploring prayer to the Lord: "O that you would open the heavens and come down!" (64.1). Because of Jesus and because of the Holy Spirit and because of the command of the Father, the heavens have been re-opened.
At the Jordan, we also hear the Father's words, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." These words are so unlike the incidents in the Old Testament when God sends the Holy Spirit to commission a prophet. This is no commissioning; this is a declaration, a declaration that Jesus is God's Son.
Yet it would be wrong to interpret the baptism of Jesus as mainly a personal event in the life of Jesus. It has implications for all humanity by launching the age of the Spirit.
This is the first sending of the Spirit. The Spirit is sent again to the apostles in the Upper Room after the resurrection and he is sent to the disciples and to all the nations at Pentecost. Then, throughout history, the Spirit is sent to the members of Christ's Body through the sacraments and sometimes in more spontaneous ways.
The Spirit has come into the world and the point of transformation began with the Lord's baptism in the Jordan.