SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK to all three readings here
John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said,
"Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
He is the one of whom I said,
'A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.'
I did not know him,
but the reason why I came baptizing with water
was that he might be made known to Israel."
John testified further, saying,
"I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven
and remain upon him.
I did not know him,
but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me,
'On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain,
he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.'
Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God."
We have a calendar peculiarity this year in that the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is not celebrated on a Sunday in 2017. I can’t help but think that this is a loss to the Catholic community in the United States. There is an explanation: general Church law places the feast of the Baptism on the first Sunday after January 6, the international date of the Epiphany. In 2017 that would have been January 8. However, national conferences of bishops, such as our USCCB, have the right to transfer the Epiphany to the Sunday between January 2 and January 8, no doubt for better observance and attendance. (The same principle hold true for Ascension “Thursday,’ which is observed on a Sunday in much of the U.S., technically the Seventh Sunday of Easter.) In 2017 the U.S. regulations would have put the Epiphany and the Baptism on the same day. In such cases the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is transferred to the next day, this year January 9, and our Cycle A Evangelist Matthew’s account was read on this Monday past.
Thus, most us this year will miss Matthew’s account of the Baptism, which is quite intriguing, though I have a link to Matthew’s text here. In Matthew’s narrative, John the Baptist is quite disconcerted that Jesus approaches him for baptism, and makes a case that their roles should be reversed. Jesus replies that “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness,” and then he allowed John to proceed. Whatever Jesus’ intention for embracing John’s baptism, there is unanimity among the four evangelists that the Jordan event was a seminal moment in the life of Jesus, marking not only the beginning of his public ministry and the bestowal of the Spirit and the Father’s favor, but perhaps a change in Jesus’ self-understanding in his identity and mission. For these reasons the baptismal texts have been core to the study of Christology, from Apostolic times to the present day.
What we have on Sunday is John the Baptist’s recollection of Jesus’ baptism as the text for the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, as written by John the Evangelist. (There is no “First Sunday in Ordinary Time” as the Christmas Season ends with the Feast of the Baptism and Ordinary Time begins this morning—Tuesday—in the Liturgy of the Hours.) The first thing to bear in mind is the mindset of the Evangelist John. As the last of the written Gospels, perhaps as late as 100 A.D., John reflects several generations of Church reflection upon the personal nature of Jesus. During that time the perception of Jesus shifted from that of an eschatological prophet returning shortly for judgment and restoration, to a human and divine being who has brought the presence of God into the here-and-now.
The Gospel of St. John was also written at a time when egregious errors about Jesus began to spread—heresies, we might say today. The two most common errors are quite understandable. The first is that Jesus was a great man but not divine. The second is the reverse: that Jesus was a divine being whose humanity was “puppet-like.” The Church would need three more centuries to formulate the truth of the Incarnation into the Creed we proclaim today, but in reading John you can see many instances of his addressing both extremes at various times.
In the above reading, John the Evangelist demonstrates the balance that makes his Gospel so critical to the Church. In Sunday’s text, John the Baptist is the first in the narrative to announce the unique nature of Jesus. Prior to this text in Chapter 1 the Baptist has already been questioned by Jewish leaders about the nature of his own mission. The Baptist is quite clear then that his mission is subservient to the coming one “the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to loosen.” Our text begins with the first public appearance of Jesus. The Baptist identifies him as (1) the Lamb of God, and (2) the one who will take away the sins of the world. There is some scholarship that holds the “lamb” symbolism as a creature of destruction of sin, much to be feared. The predominant scholarship finds connection with the prophesies of Isaiah Chapters 52 and 53, the texts read at the Church’s Good Friday ritual, which speaks of one who takes the sins of the world upon his shoulders and goes to his slaughter silently like a lamb.
The Baptist continues to give testimony, proclaiming that not only is Jesus superior to him, but that Jesus existed before him, a strong reference to preexistence, as in “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) John has thus balanced the broken and crushed lamb of the previous sentence with the preexistent divine Son of God in the next sentence. The Baptist’s statement that his mission involved making known the work of Jesus to Israel is very consistent with the other Gospels. Later in John’s Gospel it will become clear that Jesus’ mission is hardly exclusive to Israel. In Chapter 4, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well that the day is coming when all will worship in spirit and truth. Again, one can see the continuing development of Christology in the Gospels.
John does not describe the act of Jesus’ baptism. His emphasis is upon the Baptist’s recollection and interpretation, and it tells us as much about the Baptist as it does about Jesus. The Baptist states that he himself saw the Spirit of God (the prophetic spirit quenched for several centuries) come upon Jesus and remain with him. The term “remain” is a powerful one in John’s Gospel. Later, Jesus would pray that his disciples would remain in his love. The Baptist goes on to say that the Spirit would “remain” with Jesus, and that Jesus himself would continue to baptize with the Holy Spirit. Finally, the Baptist himself testifies that he himself has come to know that Jesus is the Son of God.
Something we can say with certainty is that the Baptist described in John’s Gospel is rather different from the Baptist of the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). If we recall the Advent season of readings, the accounts of Matthew and Luke describe the Baptist in a much more tentative light—as when he sends two of his disciples from Herod’s prison to inquire of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to look for someone else?” There are hints in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles that a sizeable number of the Baptist’s followers remained faithful to him, particularly after his martyr’s death under Herod. It may be that the evangelist John was attempting to portray the Baptist in an optimum light here vis-à-vis the mission of Jesus.
The best understanding of Sunday’s Gospel is its “Christology” or description of Jesus as truly God and truly man. The evangelist John has the Baptist making acclamations far beyond what he could possibly have known. But these acclamations make excellent sense coming from the lips of believers in the evangelist’s time of several generations after the public ministry of Jesus. This is St. John’s statement of “look how far we have come in our understanding of Jesus of Nazareth since the days of the Baptist.” Moreover, John has the opportunity to reinforce one of the primary messages of his writing: remain in love of one another, as God remains in his Son.”
The year-long narrative of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Cycle A) begins on January 22 with Chapter 4 and extends for the entire liturgical year