Homily: “On the Baptism of Jesus”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 2019.

In many aspects of our society, we commonly use the expression, “heir apparent.” It is a way of speaking about a person, whether man, woman or even child, and how to understand their calling, their identity. Professional sports and politics perhaps most commonly demonstrate this way of speaking. For example, some observers suggest that the heir apparent to Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, or Kareem Abdul Jabbar—for many, the three best basketball players ever to play the game—might be someone like Lebron James. In professional soccer, many wonder what player may be the heir apparent to Mia Hamm. In politics, many Democratic observers spoke of President Barack Obama as the heir apparent of President John F. Kennedy; and on the Republican side we see hopes continue that a politician might follow in the footsteps of President Ronald Reagan, as his heir apparent. The “heir apparent” means more than imitation: it means capturing the imagination of the wider world—indeed being a captivating and charismatic figure through whom progress is made, within whom all that came before is recapitulated, upon whom the hopes of all rest.

The significance of the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan is seen in this way. Saint Luke tells us the people were in expectation—they were looking for the Messiah, the heir apparent. Saint John Baptist insisted that despite the appearances by which is seemed he might fit the bill, it in fact was not him. And so God manifested the heir apparent in a dramatic revelation at the River Jordan. For when Jesus had been baptized and was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased.”

The Evangelists capture this moment in similar fashion, which is to evoke for us the Creation narrative of Genesis. The overtones are clear: the Spirit hovering over the waters, the showing forth out of waters, and the creative words of the Father. And Luke describes the heavens as being opened—such as they were opened at the death of Jesus when the veil of the Temple was torn above to below. The imagery and symbolism invites our imagination to stretch, and even explode—such as old wine skins would explode, unable to contain the new wine, because its fermenting demands a container that can stretch. In this season of the Star of Wonder, Luke wants us not to receive the revelation of Jesus being the heir apparent as information, but rather as a mystery we allow to form us, shape us, and call us to prayer.

Luke wants us to regard Jesus, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, as the “heir of all things.” And we can trace that in Scripture through the Father’s words, “Thou art my beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased.” The Prophets had been telling such a one was to come. In Isaiah we hear verses among the most preached upon in Jewish religion: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him.” In the other of Isaiah’s so-called “servant songs,” the Messiah is described as quiet, restrained, and not a conquering hero or political leader. And this echoes the second Psalm: “You are my Son, this day have I begotten you.”

And commonly through Scripture, we hear of God speaking of a “Son” as vicarious representative of all of Israel. In Exodus, God instructs Moses to say to Pharaoh: “Thus says the Lord: Israel is my first born son.” In Deuteronomy, we hear “how the Lord your God carried you, just as one carries a child.” In Jeremiah: “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in?” In Hosea, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I call my son.” And of course we have God telling Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love.” In Jewish tradition, Isaac was a mature man who chose to make himself be a sacrifice to God (before God spoke with Abraham) and so in Jewish tradition Isaac came to represent all of Israel, and the promised Messiah, therefore, the new Isaac.

And so in the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, let us hear this symphony of biblical symbolism, all coming together in focused concentration upon Jesus: the creation of existence, the revelation of the triune nature of God (Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit), His crucifixion, the prophetic strand of Hebrew spirituality involving the suffering servant who is God’s anointed and chosen representative of all people, who as high priest atones for their sins through His free-will offering of Himself and His life for the sins of all—He is the paschal Lamb of God. At his Baptism, as in the Eucharist, let us behold Him. And let us wonder at His star, His shining Light, as the first disciples did when they heard the words of John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”