BAPTISM OF THE LORD (B) January 10, 2021

Isaiah 55: 1-11 Psalm 29 Acts 10:34-38 Mark 1: 7-11

Jude Siciliano, O.P.

Dear Preachers:

We were having brake problems on one of our community cars. At the garage I started to tell a mechanic about an interior light that was out and some scratches on the right rear fender. He interrupted me, "If you are having brake problems let’s take care of that, first things first." He was right and was more focused on the main issue than I was – "First things first."

I can hear an echo of the mechanic’s voice in today’s gospel. Mark, like that mechanic, gets right down to business as he opens his gospel, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (1:1). First things first. Today we are still in the first chapter and John the Baptist is spelling out the focus of this gospel – "One mightier than I is coming." The rest of the gospel will tell us more about this One who is coming, whom the Baptist tells us, will pour the Holy Spirit over people ("He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit").

Mark makes sure we don’t miss Jesus’ importance and the significance of the event. Immediately after John baptizes him, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and he hears the voice from heaven affirming his identity. If this were a movie there would be a blast of trumpets; if it were a play, a spotlight would suddenly shine on Jesus. Mark does a similar thing – he turns a "spotlight" on Jesus with the voice from heaven. Later in the gospel he will introduce a similar voice at another dramatic moment, on the mountain of Transfiguration (9:7). At Jesus’ crucifixion, a Roman soldier speaks the message, "Truly this man was the Son of God" (15:39).

At Jesus’ baptism there are two familiar biblical images – water and the Spirit. These biblical themes go through the Old Testament, all the way back to the opening lines of Genesis – where there were also water and the hovering Spirit. Today the prophet Isaiah invites, "all you who are thirsty, come to the water." Mark is suggesting that, through Jesus, a new creation is about to take place. What was destroyed by sin and disobedience is about to be restored by the coming hoped-for Messiah who brings the Holy Spirit with him and offers us thirst-quenching water for our parched spirits and world.

On the first Sunday of Advent we heard the lament from Isaiah that became our prayer of longing, "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down" (Isaiah 64:19). Today, Mark tells us God is doing just that, answering our prayer and coming to our aid: the heavens are "torn open" and the same Spirit present at the creation of the world, has again come upon the face of the earth.

I write early in the morning. The just-arrived newspaper I glanced at with my coffee reminds me that the new year continues to hold so much pain for so many, leaving us waiting stil and hoping. Looking through the window in my room I can see the pink eastern sky with purple and pale green clouds on the horizon. Besides human misery there is so much beauty at every turn in the world. But this beautiful earth itself is damaged by our sinful excesses. Is it the smog over nearby Dallas that makes the sky color so? We need to be washed and cleansed in the same Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus at his baptism. That Spirit can move us to reach out in healing ways to a damaged earth, sky and sea.

Today’s scriptures and feast assure us that our Advent prayer is answered. God has torn open the heavens and come upon us and also on the waiting earth. Mark makes it clear that the rending of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit and the voice itself, were personal experiences for Jesus. ("On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn and the Spirit, like a dove descending on him. And a voice came from the heavens, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’") Jesus is being commissioned; he will now begin his life of public ministry. From this point on his ministry will manifest the power the Baptist anticipated. Yet, Jesus will meet resistance from powerful forces that will eventually crush him. The confirmation Jesus received at his baptism will be a strength for him as he faces rejection from religious leaders and even abandonment by his disciples.

I didn’t hear any voices at my baptism – I was an infant. I dare say neither did those baptized as adults. But we have heard that voice many times since our baptisms, haven’t we? Whenever we were faced with choices: the easy way out, or the way of integrity; the truth, or a lie; an opportunity to help someone, or move on; an effort to correct a wrong, or turn a blind eye – didn’t we hear an interior voice reminding us who we are by our baptism? "You are my beloved child with you I am well pleased." Didn’t we pray for guidance to make the right choices and strength to follow through on our decisions? Or, did we let the opportunity to act like one baptized into Christ slip by?

At those decisive and testing moments were we strengthened by that same Spirit the Baptist promised Jesus would baptize us with; a Spirit that is powerful, recreates us and forms us into, what Genesis describes as, God’s image and likeness? Those who are called to give witness to the God of love, compassion and justice are not left on their own by God. The Spirit is given them to do their work – God’s work. We can look it up: the gift of God’s Spirit is right there in every book of the bible, starting in Genesis and now present at the beginning of Mark’s gospel – and Jesus freely anoints us with that Spirit that was with him and now is with us.

John the Baptist promised that Jesus would baptize us with the Spirit. Baptism inaugurated Jesus’ mission and Mark was reminding the early Christians, as he does today for us, that through their baptism they too were sent on mission. We are not baptized into a stay-at-home community to enjoy our gatherings, sing our hymns and say our prayers. The signs are staring us in the face: there is too much need in the world. But, we are reminded, if Jesus’ life with the Spirit is any clue, we too will face resistance, suffering and possibly death, as Jesus did.

During the reading Mark has entered our thoughts. He may have interrupted our usual patterns of thinking – as the scriptures frequently do. They invite us to once again Jesus, the faithful Son and Servant of God. There is a lot that awaits us and will challenge our commitment to Christ. How will I respond? On my own – "forget about it." But today Mark reminds us that we are not on our own. We have been baptized into the Spirit of Jesus, a Spirit of power expressed in service that may require much personal sacrifice. That Spirit is more than enough to finish the work God has begun in Jesus and continues in us.

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