January 9, 2009

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord / Msgr. Owen F. Campion

The Sunday Readings

Msgr. Owen CampionThis weekend, the Church invites us to celebrate the great feast of the Baptism of the Lord, great because it commemorates a very important event in the life of Jesus and in the unfolding of salvation.

It draws our attention to marvelous and fundamental aspects of our salvation.

Jesus, the Son of God, the Redeemer, very much is the centerpiece of all three readings although, of course, the Book of Isaiah, from which comes the first reading, only prefigures Jesus. The Lord obviously was not yet born as a human when this first reading was written.

Isaiah mentions no one by name. However, the reading describes a faithful servant of God who will suffer unjustly, but who will be steadfastly faithful to God.

Over the centuries, this section of Isaiah, along with three others quite similar in literary construction and in reference to the figure that Christians have called the “Suffering Servant,” has been very popular among the pious. Poetic in style, these four similar sections are cited as the “Songs of the Suffering Servant.” These “songs” also provide readings for Holy Week, precisely for Good Friday of the Easter Triduum.

In the second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter stands as the principal figure. Peter appears before Cornelius, whose name indicates Roman origins. In itself, this encounter with Cornelius is greatly revealing. Peter did not limit his interest to Jews, whose heritage Peter shared.

Rather, Peter preached the Gospel to pagans, and indeed to the despised Romans, who were responsible for the military conquest and occupation of the Holy Land, a circumstance detested by the Jews.

Peter’s message is crisp, but profound. Salvation is in Jesus. The Holy Spirit anointed Jesus as the Savior. God was with Jesus as the Lord went about “doing good works” and healing the sick.

St. Mark’s Gospel furnishes the last reading.

It is the story of the Lord’s baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.

Ritual washings, or baptisms, had become popular in certain Jewish circles in the first century A.D. Homes were even built with ceremonial baths. The idea was that a person could visibly state the desire to be rid of sin, as if sin literally soiled the body, by washing in water.

John the Baptist acknowledges Jesus as the Redeemer. John insists that he is not the Savior. John confesses his own unworthiness, stating that he is “not worthy to loosen” the sandal-straps of the Savior.

The Gospel is clear. Jesus is the perfect, innocent and absolutely sinless Lord. Yet, Jesus assumes the sinfulness of humankind. Furthermore, God identifies Jesus as the Savior, and moreover as the Son of God. To make this declaration clear, God speaks and gestures in ancient Old Testament words and symbols that no Jew would have misunderstood.


This feast is great in the Church’s calendar because it reveals to us the Lord’s identity. He is the Son of God. Not even a prophet of John’s holiness and tenacious faith was the Lord’s equal.

Secondly, Jesus assumes the sinfulness of us all. In this sense, as stated elsewhere in the Scriptures by St. Paul, Jesus is a new Adam, a new and perfect representative of the human race. But Jesus is a representative, and Creator, of union with God, rather than a sign and cause of estrangement from God, as was Adam.

Using as its own the words of Peter, who spoke for the other Apostles, for the Christian community, and most importantly for Jesus, the Church calls us to the Lord our Savior.

We are sinners. However, Jesus, the Son of God, has assumed our sins, reconciling us with God. Reconciliation through Jesus is perfect, unbroken and absolute. This reconciliation brings eternal life. †

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