The Baptism of the Lord (cycle B) – 10th January 2021
Lectionary Readings: Isa. 42:1-4, 6-7 ; Ps. 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10; Acts 10:34-38; Mark. 1:7-11
Theme: The Lord the strength that animates us
The feast of the Baptism of the Lord concludes the Advent-Christmas liturgical season. In the early Church, it was closely linked to the Epiphany as a ’manifestation’ of the Son of God. Today we read Mark’s account and, for him, the baptism signifies the coming of the “mightier/more powerful” one, Jesus, who submits to John’s baptism of repentance in solidarity with the sinful human condition. The focus of Mark’s narrative is on the rending of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit, and the heavenly voice which addresses Jesus directly: “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you.” We see here an echo of the opening words of the prophet Ezekiel and the story of his calling to be a prophet: “…the heavens were opened and I saw a vision of God … the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel … and the hand of the LORD came upon him.” It also echoes the cry in Isaiah, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 24:17). The words of God’s acceptance echo Psalm 2:7, a psalm of royal adoption: “You are my son; … this day I become your father”. We hear echoes, too of Isaiah 42, our first reading today, which describes a servant chosen by God, “with whom I am pleased,”/”upon whom I have put my spirit.” It also anticipates the voice at the Transfiguration in Mark 9:7: “This is my beloved Son.”
Our reading from Isaiah is the first of the four great ‘Servant Songs’, which describe a figure who was chosen by God to proclaim justice through tenderness rather than force and who will ultimately be lifted up, not in triumph, but in shame and disgrace, giving his life as an offering for sin (Isaiah 53:12). In the context of the promised new ‘exodus’ for the people, this time from exile in Babylon, it is as if a new ‘Moses’ is needed. The latter verses of this passage seem to be addressed to the exiles themselves, and especially the leaders among them. They are challenged not only to long for their release from suffering, but to ensure a release for all people from their suffering.
The reminders in Isaiah of God’s power and promises are proclaimed and celebrated in Psalm 28, which concludes with the promise of peace: “The LORD gives strength to God’s people; the LORD blesses God’s people with peace”. We do not read this final couplet, but its essence is used as the response: “The LORD will bless God’s people with peace.”
In Peter’s speech in the Acts, we hear the fullest summary that Luke, the author of Acts, gives of the gospel story in this book, beginning in Galilee after John’s baptism and stressing the power of Jesus’ healing ministry. The work of the Spirit is emphasized and echoes the role of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism, which, in turn, echoes the words of the Servant Song of Isaiah which we read today: “I have endowed him with my spirit”.
The idea of a new activity of God on earth is conveyed in our readings by the descent of the Spirit, for in Jewish thought the Spirit of God represents God’s creative activity, as described in Genesis: “God’s spirit hovered over the water …” (Genesis 1:1). It is made clear that John’s baptism is a sign of new creation. John appears as a prophet, a sign of renewal, and restoration. In the creation story in Genesis, God “saw that it was good” (Genesis 1 passim). At the start of this New Year, what might God see when God looks at our world? What might be the signs of a new creation for us? Are we, like the exiles in our Isaiah reading, being called ”to serve the cause of right”?
Bibliography: McKenzie, J.L. Dictionary of the Bible (New York: 1965).
This week’s Sunday Liturgy Commentary was prepared by
Margaret Shepherd, NDS, England, Bat Kol Alumna/Alumnus