8 January [Baptism of the Lord]
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptised by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptised, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
The last time we saw Jesus in Matthew's gospel he was a very young child, a baby, brought by his parents to live in Nazareth. Now we see him as an adult. But where is he? He is undistinguished among a crowd of penitents. John's baptism was a baptism of repentance: people who were moved by his preaching to change their ways went out to the river to be 'baptised' by him. Thus they symbolised their need to finish with their old ways and turn over a new leaf. The word 'baptism' means 'being plunged': they were plunged in the river as a sign of cleansing. Look back along that line of sinners and who do you see? - Jesus of Nazareth, now a young man, lining up with sinners who want to change their ways. It expresses everything that he is going to be. He will show complete solidarity with sinners: he will sit and eat with sinners, share his life with them, defend them against heartless religious authorities who would call them unclean and cast them out. As he lived among them, he would die among them, crucified as an evil-doer. He does not come like a firebrand yelling God's vengeance on sinners; he comes as one of them.
About seven centuries earlier, speaking in God's name, the prophet Isaiah had written, "Here is my servant…my chosen one, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice."
'Faithfully to bring forth justice': you would think this meant punishing sinners and rewarding the just. That would be our kind of justice. Apparently it is not God's and not Jesus'. It takes a saint to put the right words on it. St Thérèse of Lisieux wrote, "How great a joy it is to think that God is just; that, in other words, he makes allowances for our weaknesses and understands perfectly the frailty of our humanity." In other words, God's justice is his mercy, his mercy is his justice. A God who was only just would not be just - because we could never take the brunt of such justice. "In every work of God…there appears mercy," wrote St Thomas Aquinas. "For this reason God, out of the abundance of His goodness, bestows on creatures what is due to them more bountifully than is proportionate to what they deserve." This was a new thing in the world.
If we don’t experience mercy at the hands of Christ's disciples they are not really his disciples; they are living by the older morality, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
Water is the way to clean yourself. John's baptism was a kind of self-improvement. Jesus would put it on a totally different footing. "I baptise with water," said John, "he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matthew 3:11). This is the real way of transformation. Only the Holy Spirit can change us; left to ourselves we just rearrange ourselves to look better.
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