Next Sunday, we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. Originally, this was celebrated as part of The Epiphany. But over time, the visit of the magi became the dominate theme and focus. In 1955, Pope Pius XII instituted a distinct celebration that focuses solely on the baptism of Jesus. In the West, Roman Catholic celebrate the Baptism of the Lord on the Sunday following Epiphany… although in a year when the Epiphany falls on Sunday January 7th or 8th, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated the next day, Monday.
This is what John the Baptist proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:7-11)
There is an option as regards the Gospel in that one can proclaim Matthew 3:13-17 which also addresses the Baptism of the Lord. You can read a full commentary on the Matthean gospel here.
Some think that John was part of the apocalyptic Jewish sect of Essenes who opposed the temple in Jerusalem. At least this much is clear — John the Baptizer was a prophet of radical dissent; his detractors said that he had a demon (Luke 7:33). Whereas his father had been part of the religious establishment as a priest in the Jerusalem temple, John fled the comforts and corruptions of the city for the loneliness of the desert. There he dressed in animal skins, ate insects and wild honey, and preached. Living on the margins of society, both literally and figuratively, he preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4), which is to say that he announced a message of both indictment and invitation. Contrary to what we might have expected from such an ascetic man with an austere message, the Gospels say that people flocked to John. Even in far away Ephesus people submitted to the baptism of John (Acts 19:3).
John’s preaching in the Judean desert and baptizing in the Jordan river confronted both the religious and the political powers of his day. About six months after John emerged from the desert like some scraggly lunatic and baptized Jesus, he was beheaded at the whim of Herod the tetrarch, who at a dinner party capitulated to the sadistic demand of his girlfriend’s daughter. John was the forerunner of Jesus, but he was also a truth-teller to Herod, having rebuked Herod for sleeping with his brother’s wife (Mark 6:14–29). But as with many perverse politicians, Herod had his way with him who had spoken truth to power, so John was murdered.
With some important stylistic differences, all four Gospels tell the story of Jesus’s baptism by John: “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased'” (Luke 3:21–22 = Mark 1:9–11= Matthew 3:13–17; John 1:29–34).
Why did Jesus the greater submit to baptism by John the lesser? Did he need to repent of his own sins? The earliest witnesses of his baptism asked this question, because in Matthew’s Gospel John the Baptizer tried to deter Jesus: “Why do you come to me? I need to be baptized by you!” John insinuates that Jesus was not getting baptized for his own sins.
Even a hundred years after the event, Jesus’s baptism made some Christians feel uneasy. In the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews (c. 80–150 AD), Jesus denies that he needs to repent. He seems to get baptized to please his mother: “The mother of the Lord and his brothers said to him, ‘John the Baptist baptizes for the forgiveness of sins; let us go and be baptized by him.’ But he said to them, ‘In what way have I sinned that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless, perhaps, what I have just said is a sin of ignorance.’” Others have suggested that Jesus set an example for us, that just as he was baptized, we too should be baptized.
Jesus’s baptism inaugurated his public ministry by identifying with what Mark describes as “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.” He allied himself with the faults and failures, the pains and the problems, of all the broken and hurting people who had flocked to the Jordan River. By wading into the waters with them he took his place beside us and among us.
With his baptism, Jesus openly and decisively stood shoulder to shoulder with me in my fears and anxieties. He intentionally took sides with people in their neediness and declared that God was biased in their favor: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So, let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.” (Hebrews 4:15–16). God’s abundant mercy, Jesus declared, is available directly and immediately to every person.
Jesus’s baptismal solidarity with broken people was vividly confirmed by divine affirmation and empowerment. Still wet with water after his cousin had plunged him beneath the Jordan River, Jesus heard a voice and saw a vision — the declaration of God the Father that Jesus was his beloved son, and the descent of God the Spirit in the form of a dove. The vision and the voice punctuated the baptismal event. They signaled the meaning, the message and the mission of Jesus as he went public after thirty years of invisibility — that by the power of the Spirit, the Son of God embodied his Father’s unconditional embrace of all people everywhere.