The triune God

| Father Michael Joncas | January 10, 2019 | 0 Comments

The Church offers us a multitude of readings for the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. In Year C, the Gospel reading is taken from the Lukan account of the event (Lk 3:15-16, 21-22), but the preliminary readings may be taken from either Year A (Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Ps 29: 1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10 “The Lord will bless his people with peace”; Acts 10:34-38) or from Year C (Is 40:1-5, 9-11; Ps 104:1B-2, 3-4, 24-25, 27-28, 29-30: “O bless the Lord, my soul”; Ti 2:11-14; 3:4-7). Since I do not know which readings will be chosen in the reader’s worshipping community, I am limiting my remarks to the Gospel passage prescribed for the feast.

Rome, Italy - March 9, 2016: Rome - The Baptism of Christ painting in Basilica di Santa Maria del Popolo by Pasquale Rossi mid. 18. cent.

Rome, Italy – March 9, 2016: Rome – The Baptism of Christ painting in Basilica di Santa Maria del Popolo by Pasquale Rossi mid. 18. cent. iStock/sedmak

Although centuries of theological reflection have made a connection between the baptism of Jesus and Christian baptism, the ceremony narrated in Luke recounts a mass baptism administered by John the Baptist. In the context of this ceremony, Jesus aligns himself with the Baptist’s message and submits to the ritual activity prompted by his preaching.

Part of John the Baptist’s message was that God was putting an end to human history with its burden of sin, but, unlike the similar divine activity in the story of Noah, God would not destroy the world by water, but by fire. Just as some animals and humans were saved from the Great Flood by means of an ark, so now a remnant of God’s people might be saved from the Great Fire by being immersed in water, a protection from fire, if they submitted to John’s baptism and transformed their lives morally.

In Luke’s version of the story of Jesus’ baptism, the ritual activity is relatively underplayed, noting only that Jesus had been part of a great crowd (“all the people”) who had been baptized by John. But very characteristic of Luke’s theology is the note that Jesus was praying in the time after his baptism. In fact, one could argue that for Luke, it is prayer that creates a state of altered consciousness in Jesus, which leads him to a deeper understanding of his own mission as a result of this baptism. Notice the eschatological sign of the heavens opening: Here is an in-breaking of divine presence, but it is not accompanied by flood or fire. Rather, visual and vocal signs bespeak Jesus’ unique mission as Son of God.

There is debate over whether these visual and vocal signs were intended for the crowd to observe, or for Jesus alone. The versions found in the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus (alone?) seeing the Spirit of God descend like a dove over Jesus (Mk 1:10; Mt 3:16; Lk 3:22); in contrast, in the Johannine tradition, John the Baptist testifies that he saw “the Spirit descend like a dove from the sky and rest on” Jesus (Jn 3:32).

While the observers of the visible sign of the Spirit’s dove-like descent vary in the different Gospel accounts, the voice speaking from heaven has a different purpose depending on which narrative we read. In Mark and Luke, the voice declares, “You are my beloved Son,” i.e., the message is addressed to Jesus; in Matthew the voice declares, “This is my beloved Son,” i.e., the message is addressed to the bystanders; in the Johannine tradition it is John the Baptist who testifies, “This is God’s Chosen One,” i.e., the message is addressed to those who receive John’s testimony.

Whether or not the visual and vocal signs associated with Jesus’ baptism were intended for him, for the Baptist who testified to him or for the crowds who wondered about Jesus’ social status, we can interpret this biblical scene as a manifestation of the Triune God: the Father as the voice from heaven acknowledging Jesus as his dearly beloved, the Holy Spirit in bodily form as a dove descending upon Jesus (perhaps with a reminiscence of the dove associated with Noah and the Great Flood), and Jesus at prayer as he undertakes the mission given him as the Father’s beloved Son.

Father Joncas, a composer, is an artist in residence at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Sunday, January 13
Baptism of the Lord

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