Bishop Glen John Provost

Bishop of Lake Charles

The Baptism of the Lord

January 11, 2015

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Lake Charles, Louisiana

On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.”  Mark 1:10

As a pilgrim to the Holy Land, one visits the traditional spot on the Jordan River where the baptism of Our Lord took place. The Jordan River is narrow at that point and forms the border between Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan. It is always crowded. On my last visit, I saw pilgrims from Italy renewing their baptismal promises and from Russia being baptized in the river.   The water was not crystal clear as one might expect. Instead, it was murky and muddy. Across the way, an armed Jordanian soldier stood guard as a reminder of tensions that have existed for millennia at this crossroads of the world.  

Here or at a location not far away almost 2,000 years ago Jesus of Nazareth had come to be baptized. He did not need the baptism of St. John. The baptism of St. John was a baptism of repentance to which all in Israel were being called. Just as water washes away dirt and cleanses, the waters of the Jordan were symbolic of the washing away of sin. The bathers were repentant sinners.   So, why does Jesus come to be baptized? 

The simple answer is identification. Jesus identifies with the People of Israel. A teacher identifies with her students, a doctor with his patient, a priest with his parishioner, a parent with a child.   Someone identifies with someone else by becoming one with that person.     

So the waters parted for the Chosen People, and they passed from slavery to freedom (Exodus 14:10ff.). Now St. John summoned the people of Israel to the Jordan for another crossing.  They must cross from sin to forgiveness. Jesus comes to the Jordan because he is one with the People, like them in all things but sin. But it is this absence of sin that distinguishes Him.  He comes from the Chosen People but transcends any category. In this baptism, Jesus moves us from the familiar to the new. He takes the known and introduces us to the yet unknown.   

As the voice of the Father proclaims, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). The Father is revealing Jesus as His Son. This is a new relationship. Jesus comes to create a new People of God. The new sons and daughters of God will share in Jesus’ relationship with the Father. There will be a new baptism, a new water, a new cleansing, for a new People.  

I find the description in the Gospel of the Baptism so dramatic. As Jesus came up from the Jordan River, “he saw the heavens being torn open” (Mark 1:10). The Greek word (i.e. σχίζω) used here for “being torn open” means “to split” or “to cleave,” like taking a hatchet to wood or a butcher knife to meat. This is no simple opening of in cloud to let sunbeams through.  Here is a theophany worthy of Exodus.   St. Mark is known for his economy with words and here he uses one word with a lightning bolt effect. The heavens are “torn open.” The heavens cannot ignore what is happening. Even God must speak, lest distracted by the mundane we poor mortals miss the point.            

In Jesus we find someone new, someone greater. Yes, he does the familiar but only with a view to revealing something fuller. “There is something greater than Solomon here” and “there is something greater than Jonah here,” (Luke 11:31, 32). These are Jesus’ own words.   Everything He does and everything He says points to a fulfillment which is beyond our imagining and surpasses our every expectation.    He is the “One mightier” than John, the one whose sandal thongs John is unworthy to untie (Mark 1:7). 

We should make no mistake about who Jesus is.  Our Catholic liturgy does us the favor of revealing Him once again to us.  For this reason we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus at Christmas time. The Baptism reveals something of Jesus, just as did the birth in Bethlehem or the visit of the Magi.  They all speak to the unique person of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of Man, Messiah, and Redeemer of the world.