Setup for blessing of holy water celebrated on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord
The baptism of Jesus is the inspiring event that sets Jesus’ earthly ministry in motion. It is also an event that continues to puzzle us as much as it puzzled John the Baptist.
What did Jesus mean when he told John that it was “proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness?” (Mt. 3: 15) Perhaps Jesus was proclaiming full solidarity with all fellow humans in that, although he did not have any sin to repent of, he repented with us who do have sins to repent of. But this way of looking at it presupposes that sin is only a personal matter. It is that, of course, but we should note that in Hebrew anthropology, righteousness is not a matter of individuals being righteous; it is a matter of social justice. That is, all righteousness is not fulfilled until social justice has been established. In Isaiah 42, which this episode in Matthew recalls, the prophet will not rest “until he has established justice in the earth,” (Is. 42: 4) Such justice involves bringing “out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Is. 42: 7) Jesus was soon going to teach a whole new way for people to relate to each other that would dismantle our prison system in favor of a whole new way of reforming people and society if ever the teachings were truly followed. In accepting a baptism of repentance in order to “fulfil all righteousness,” Jesus is expressing a deep solidarity with all people at the level of social sin. Maybe Jesus was personally sinless, but as fully human, Jesus was just as compromised from birth by the social matrix as anybody else. Jesus immersed himself in sinful human culture in order to redeem it. That’s solidarity.
As soon as Jesus was baptized in solidarity with us, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. Jesus’ act of solidarity was opening up new and great possibilities for the relationship of all people with God. The divine voice praising Jesus for what he had done is also offered to each one us: each of us is invited to be sons and daughters of God with whom God is well pleased. It is fitting that this affirmation overflowing like a flood of water should happen at the moment of repentance, for it is repentance that opens up the new possibilities. The two actually happen together as it is God’s affirmation that gives us the strength and courage to repent.
It is also God’s affirmation which reveals the need for repentance. Sadly, God’s affirmation draws our attention to the many failures we all experience in affirming each other. More sadly, it is those who try the hardest to actualize the new possibilities God is opening up who receive the most violent opprobrium as the Suffering Servant did in Isaiah and as Jesus would suffer as well. In the United States, racial injustice continues to be an intractable problem, a problem that imprisons all of us. Black people in the US receive quite the opposite message from the dominant white society than the message God gives each of us, black and white and colored alike. So habitual is the assumption among those of us who are white that blacks are inferior that even those of us who are well-meaning in racial matters have a very hard time seeing the truth of what we are doing and not doing and we need the assistance of others, not least the assistance of persons of color, to begin to see the problem.
The first Christians were faced with a similar challenge with the issue of admitting gentiles into the nascent church. It came as a shock to Peter when he was told in a vision to go to the house of the gentile Cornelius. (Acts 10) The power of his socially-induced prejudice was so great that, despite his declaration that these gentiles were “acceptable” to God after all, he earned the rebuke of Paul at a later time when he held back from table fellowship with gentiles. The story of the Canaanite woman suggests that Jesus himself truly struggled with the social norm of excluding such people. (Mt. 15: 21-28)
This consideration is discouraging and hardly sounds like the deep affirmation God offers us through the affirmation of Jesus at his baptism. This discouragement comes from a misunderstanding of what God’s affirmation is all about. In our egocentricity, we tend to think and feel that God’s affirmation is all about ME. It isn’t. God’s affirmation is all about US. By “us,” I don’t mean just me and others like me; I mean all of us, including those who are different from us.
Does this mean that God does not affirm us after all if we don’t affirm others? Let me put it this way. The way of repentance was opened not only by God’s affirmation of us but also by God’s forgiveness as proclaimed by the apostolic preaching. Many times, Jesus connected God’s forgiveness of us with our forgiveness of others. That is not to say that God does not forgive us when we don’t forgive; it is more a case that we fall away from the forgiveness we continue to receive. The same goes for God’s affirmation through Jesus’ baptism. We are all affirmed as sons and daughters with whom God is well pleased, but if we don’t share this affirmation with everybody else, we fall away from the affirmation that God continues to shower on us. None of us likes it of we have to struggle with dis-affirmation to arrive at the truth of God’s radical affirmation of us. So why impose the same struggle on others? Let us instead embrace God’s affirmation of us all so that we can all escape the prisons we have imposed on ourselves. Then, and only then, will we fulfill all righteousness.