January 8, 2023
Revised Common Lectionary
Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13 (see 11)
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
The following reflection is based on Lectionary readings for the Baptism of the Lord. Roman Catholics and other Christians who are today observing the Epiphany of the Lord may find a reflection for the day here.
The biblical story of creation, the very first verse of the Torah, begins with God’s breath over the waters: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God [or ‘the spirit of God’] swept over the face of the waters.” (Gen 1:1). The biblical story of creation portrays life springing from the breath of God moving over the waters. Interestingly, scientific evidence also points to the waters as the place where life first appeared on earth nearly three and half billion years ago.
The Jesus story likewise begins with water. The Good News as told in all four of the canonical Gospels starts with the adult Jesus encountering John the Baptist at the Jordan River. Scholars regard the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, along with the very beautiful prologue of John’s Gospel, as introductions to the real story which begins here, at the water. With introductions out of the way, Jesus plunges into the water, God’s voice is heard, and the Spirit of God comes upon him. He emerges with his identity confirmed and proclaimed.
The story of Jesus’ baptism that we hear today offers us some important insights into our own baptism and its continuing importance in the journey of faith.
First, in baptism our identity as children of God is affirmed. In a world where many of us received negative messages in childhood and throughout our lives, God’s voice is clearly heard: “This is my child, my beloved.” This message is critical for people who have been made to feel throughout their lives that they’re not enough and for LGBTQ+ children and youth who have been bullied or shamed into thinking they don’t belong. God’s voice rings from the heavens: “This is my child, my beloved.” Disciples of Jesus are called to heed that voice by recognizing our own worth and in offering that same affirmation to those who have been marginalized.
Second, the story of Jesus’ baptism reminds us that we, like Jesus and John the Baptist, have been called to “fulfill all righteousness.” To accept the gift of baptism means submitting to God’s will as Jesus did, to become a disciple of Christ, to align our living to the way that he has taught us. The core of that teaching will follow in the Gospel of Matthew just two chapters later, when Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount.
In that powerful sermon we learn how to be a disciple of Jesus, by following the way of the beatitudes, becoming peacemakers in the face of rallying cries for war, comforting and supporting the mothers whose sons are shot in our streets, bringing the message of mercy to a society that incarcerates young men of color at an astonishing rate, acting as reconcilers in our own families and communities, forgiving others as we wish to be forgiven. Like Jesus, we have been empowered for this work by the Spirit who in baptism has come upon us, who continues to abide in us, and who gives us strength each day for witness and action.
Baptism is of course just the starting point. The baptism that Jesus received in the Jordan was his first baptism. He later tells his disciples that he has another baptism to receive, namely his death. When James and John vie for places of honor, he challenges them as to whether they can be baptized with that baptism also. While Christian baptism is about identity, discipleship, and mission, it is also about being joined to Christ in his dying and rising. In Romans 6, Paul tells us that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” We have died with Christ, the apostle tells us, so that “we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4). If you want to live, you have to die.
Our life begins in the water but continues in the Spirit. Just as the breath of God blew life into being and just as the Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism, so too is the Holy Spirit our companion and guide in daily living, in time of trial, and even in the face of death.
A Hymn for Today: “The Strong and Gentle Voice”
Once we’ve emerged from the water, then what? Following the passage we heard today, the very next verse in Matthew’s Gospel says, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” His baptism and the stirring of the Spirit prepare him to face a time of testing and to begin his mission of proclaiming God’s reign.
Mennonite hymn writer Adam M. L. Tice reflects on the way in which the Spirit guided Jesus in his journey from the water to the desert and how the Spirit that we received in baptism continues to guide us. The text is set to a hauntingly beautiful tune by Sally Ann Morris, FHS. Listen here.
The strong and gentle voice,
The swift, descending Dove
And Jesus, rising from the stream,
Met joyfully in love.
The Three were found as One
By Jordan’s rugged shore
Where John the Baptist preached the way
Of justice for the poor.
And was the Dove content
By Jordan to remain?
She guided Jesus on to know
Temptation, thirst, and pain.
He faced a three-fold test
That no one else could bear.
The desert beasts remained with him
And angels gave him care.
Baptismal waters dry,
A moment’s bliss will fade,
But with the Dove to lead us on
We need not be afraid.
Text: Adam M. L. Tice, b. 1979, © GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857
Tune: NEW RESTORATION
Image Credit: Baptism of Christ, Dave Zalenka, 2005
“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.
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