It wasn’t that long ago – I’ll give you a clue, it was December 5th – that we heard the first part of the story we just concluded in the Gospel from St. Matthew. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” John the Baptist told us, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” You have to wonder if the people that had trudged out into the wilderness to see John the Baptist were let down by him saying that. You know, “Thanks for coming out, and I know you think I’m special and all, but I’m just the first act. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you when the headliner will get here, but the show’s gonna be incredible.”
Imagine, then, John the Baptist’s face when the Headliner does arrive. Now imagine the Baptist’s face when that Headliner doesn’t seize control of the congregation but instead waits in line to see him. The water must have turned to lead in his hands. Baptizing the Son of the Living God, even if He is your cousin, had to be surreal, even to someone as surreal as John. Surreal as he may have been, the Baptist wasn’t wrong about Jesus bringing the Holy Spirit and fire, and he wasn’t kept waiting for long. The heavens did indeed open and the Holy Spirit did appear, the very voice of God declaring the pleasure He took in His Son.
Not many of us remember our baptisms, but I’m willing to bet that, while every baptism is exciting, none of ours featured the pyrotechnics of Jesus’. I’ll go out on a limb and say that none of us laid our eyes on any holy Doves or heard the very voice of God while our heads were being patted dry. We don’t expect anything to “happen” when we witness a baptism; maybe a few flashes of light, but those are usually from the cameras of doting grandparents. Yet in the quietness, behind the gentle sounds of water falling back into the font, behind the sighs and sometimes the screams of the dampened child, the fullness of salvation comes to us.
“In first-century Israel there were two seasons: rainy (from late September to late April) and dry (early May to early September). During the rainy season people stayed indoors. During the dry season, people could be out and about, a very important Mediterranean activity. People there love to see and be seen. In this regard, Jesus and his disciples were typical Mediterraneans.
That Jesus and others could be “dipped” in the Jordan indicates it was the beginning of the dry season, when the Jordan and its streams would have been filled with the winter rains and the sun had warmed the shallow waters to a comfortable temperature.” But as comfortable as that dipping may have been, it could have ended up being an embarrassment to the disciples of Jesus; why would Jesus, the Son of God, need to be baptized by John, who, by definition, was just a messenger of that same God?
“Matthew’s account offers two explanations to ease the embarrassment. One is common to all three accounts of Jesus’ baptism, namely, the voice from heaven. In the Hebrew Scripture, this voice is called the “daughter of the voice” (bat qol), that is, the “echo” of something God has spoken. The voice from heaven in Matthew says that Jesus is baptized because God wills it. God is pleased by Jesus’ obedience, which in turn suggests that Jesus deserves obedience from his followers. The second explanation which is peculiar to Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus’ claim that he must “fulfill all righteousness.” So we have obedience to God’s will and the timely fulfillment of the same, all wrapped up in one watery act of Jesus.
And so here we are, on the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, and this weekend (now) we have our own baptism, the baptism of one little Michael Robert Berry. The heavens may not open and the voice of God may not thunder, but doesn’t mean God’s not speaking. That doesn’t mean the Holy Ghost is not descending upon Mikey. All righteousness will be fulfilled and the will of God will be obeyed; the heavens will shake with the songs of the angels while his name is written in the Book of Life and marked with the Angelic seal. Mikey might not remember his baptism but the Lord will; and all the more, from this time forward when the Lord looks upon Mikey, He will see His own son by adoption: washed, chosen, sealed, marked as His own forever. Thanks be to God.
All quotes are from the Center for Liturgy Sunday Website