The Baptism of the Lord, this year on January 10, marks formally the end of the Christmas season. As such, it is a sensible transition point to the Church calendar’s ordinary time, for now the weeks up to the beginning of Lent on February 17.
Jesus is baptized! But we need to think carefully about this feast, if we are to get at what Mark, who first tells the story, thinks is important about the baptism of Jesus by John.
The setting is clear, as we heard just a few weeks ago, on the Second Sunday of Advent,
"And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins… In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. (Mark 1.5, 9)
Mark does not speculate as to why Jesus came all the way from Nazareth to be baptized by John (who is not described as a cousin of Jesus, as he is in Luke): was it simply a demonstration of Jesus’ humility, his solidarity with sinners, his dutiful appreciation of rites of repentance, his setting a good example for others? Such elements may be involved, but if we stop with them, we miss much of the deeper meaning of today’s Gospel. This is no ordinary ritual.
John the Baptist hints at what’s at stake, when he readily admits the limits of his baptizing:
"I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (1.8)
Water cleans the outside, even as plunging into a river shows in public a penitent’s hope for a new, clean start. But the Spirit – inseparable from spirit, breath, life – has to do with what is deep inside us, our most intimate being-alive — and often acts invisibly.
Indeed, after Jesus was baptized, he has what seems to be a deep spiritual experience, his own experience of God, as the divide between God and the human is torn asunder:
"Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove into him. (1.9-10)
And why a dove? Mark may be reminding us of the very beginning of the world. Genesis 1 does not mention a dove, but I (who know no Hebrew) am told that the “hovering” of God over the waters evokes the gentle flight of a dove:
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1.1-2)
A later Rabbinic treatise makes explicit the hint at a comparison to a dove:
"Ben Zoma explained: I was gazing between the upper and the lower waters, and there is only a bare three fingers’ breadth between them, for it is said: And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters — like a dove which hovers over her young without touching them. (In the treatise Hagigah, Babylonian Talmud 15a)
The scene at the Jordan is a new creation, gentle and life-giving, God the Mother hovering over the chaos of our world.
The lovely Odes of Solomon, written later than Mark, seems to echo the tradition Mark has in mind:
"As the wings of doves over their nestlings, and the mouths of their nestlings toward their mouths,
So also are the wings of the Spirit over my heart.
The dove fluttered over the head of our Lord Messiah, because he was her Head.
And she sang over him, and her voice was heard. (Odes of Solomon 28.1, 3)
The dove gently comes down and hovers, in order to feed her young. She sings, and so she welcomes and protects the Messiah. Here too, the Spirit is like a mother hovering over her beloved child.
Even more: scholars note that the force of the Greek expression here is that the Spirit, first hovering like a dove, then enters into Jesus. So now I take a certain liberty of expanding the translation a bit:
"He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit hovering over him like a dove, then entering into him. (1.10)
What is happening seems to be an intensely personal, private experience. It is Jesus who sees the Spirit descending on him, and Mark (unlike Matthew and John) does not indicate that the crowds or even the Baptist sensed the Spirit coming down upon Jesus. Likewise (and unlike what happens at the Transfiguration, Mark 9.7), the voice from heaven seems to be directed only to Jesus:
"And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Clearly, Mark is telling us, something happened to Jesus that day. He something and heard something. This is made dramatically clear in the brief sequel (which we will come back to only in Lent): the Spirit now intimately within him, Jesus changes direction — turning not toward Nazareth whence he came, but out into the desert whence John had come:
"And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. (1.12)
How could Jesus have a spiritual experience, particularly an experience of God, of the Spirit, with the announcement that he is God’s Beloved? Shouldn’t he have known this already in the manger in Bethlehem? Not so – the Son of God, he is truly human as we are, and he could learn and have new experiences, as at the Jordan. He finds out with great clarity and power that he is the Beloved, and so he must reimagine his entire life. It took forty days in the desert to realize what all this meant, and how he could never return home, the same as he had been before. And so:
"He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (1.13)
As for us: if (as we should) we believe that in some small way we are invited to experience whatever Jesus experienced, then we can think anew about who we are as baptized children of God. Being baptized is not simply a tame ritual that we go through as infants or children or adults. It is not that Jesus' baptism was an ordinary event, like our baptisms. Rather, our baptisms are extraordinary, like his, By baptism, the Spirit gently comes down, hovers over us, enters inside us, becomes as intimate to us as our own breath. We too can’t go home again, back to our Nazareth, the way things used to be. We too are drawn out into the desert where Jesus prayed, where before him John had prayed, and before them both the people of Israel had wandered for forty years on their way to the Promised Land. And then we too, like John and Jesus, can by the Spirit of God take up the ministry God has given us. Can we do this, really? Of course: by grace, we too are the Beloved of God. This is what begins in baptism and shapes our entire lives.
Beloved, baptized by water and the Spirit, sent into the world: this is the reality we can carry with us, when we hear this Gospel on this feast at the start of 2021 — a year of hope that begins still tinged with despair, amid a still fiercely raging pandemic that has killed two million people worldwide and more than 350,000 Americans; in a society where race and class and economic disparities stand out more starkly than ever; in a land riven with deep dissensions, our democracy more threatened than at any time since 1865. The world needs the good news, needs women and men who with patience and courage and love work quietly (and sometimes loudly) to change things. Can you and I do this, really? Of course: what cannot we not do, beloved of the Lord?
(For some insights in this homily I am indebted to the Rev. C. E. B. Cranfield’s “The Baptism of Our Lord — a Study of St. Mark 1.9-11” (1955), and Alexey Somov’s “The Dove in the Story of Jesus’ Baptism” (2018). Contact me if you would like fuller reference to these fine articles.)
An earlier version of this homily was given in the recorded Mass for this weekend, now at the parish website.