Today’s passage does not answer my basic question about the Baptism of Jesus: “What is the difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’?”
There are hints of an answer, but I want clear and distinct ideas and I am not going to get them. What we want to know and what Jesus wants to tell us may not always be the same thing. So, let us try to see what Jesus wants us to know.
The passage beings with a statement common to all the Gospels that although John will baptize Jesus, Jesus is superior to him. Matthew has prepared us for this a few sentences before by saying: “(that Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:11).
When he emerges from the water, he has a vision of the heavens opening. This resembled that of Ezekiel the prophet who in captivity in Babylon saw a restored Jerusalem and temple. (Eze 1:1). Before this point all the information about Jesus was delivered by others – angels, the magi, even the “high priests and scribes of the people” – but now information comes directly from God.
Remember that he was coming out of the water. Water is the ancient sign of chaos as New Yorkers now understand so much better post-Sandy. The world was formed from this watery chaos by a mighty wind. This wind in Hebrew “ruach” was the first expression for the Holy Spirit. (Ge 1:2). The dove reappears with Noah and the ark. He flies over the waters and eventually returns with proof that once again order has been restored becoming the sign of the beginning of a new world (Ge 8:8–12).
The spirit is very involved with kingship as well. Samuel tells David that the Spirit of God would come upon him “and will be changed into another man” (1 Sa 10:6). This indeed occurred soon afterwards when the Spirit of God rushed upon David. (1 Sa 16:13).
We see from these echoes of Scripture that Jesus would not just tinker around the edges of things but would recreate the world and that if we are baptized with the Holy Spirit then we too would be changed “into another person”. We sang today from the 29th Psalm “The voice of the Lord is over the waters, the Lord sits enthroned above the flood and reigns as king forever” This is not reform, this is recreation.
And it is a very personal one. The voice from heaven calls Jesus beloved son. The only person called beloved in the Old Testament is Isaac, the son of Abraham. God demands that Abraham sacrifice Isaac to him. (Ge 22:2). God did not require Abraham to complete the deed but he, God, did sacrifice Jesus. He will conquer on the cross as is foretold in today’s first reading:
Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
Upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations.
When reading Matthew’s Gospel, we must always remember that he is not only an evangelist in the strict sense -a writer of a canonical, official, Gospel – but a pastor as well. He led a community which was diverse and did not always get along well together. He couldn’t take something off the shelf and use it for his church but had to do something new. He sees the means of doing this from the very beginning with the Baptism of Jesus and his gift of the spirit to all who will be Baptized. He expected his people to recognize these passages from scripture and put them into practice: rebuild, recreate, renew.
We should too.
Who do we see in our pews and how can we serve them? It is very striking that we have many young professionals, single, engaged or married with or without children for whom there is no ready to use program or group. Years ago, most parishes had the Rosary Society for women, the Holy Name for men, and the Vincent de Paul Society for those who wished to work with the poor. Women, for instance, who were superbly educated and made a good salary, existed but there was nothing that fit their unique needs in most parishes.
Personally, the only traditional activity in a parish that ever interested me was the Vincent de Paul Society. If we have truly received the Spirit in our baptisms, there should be the fire to do something as a community for and with this group. I am happy to report that our young professionals are organizing themselves very quickly but effectively both for their own spiritual growth and development but also to help mentor the foster children at St Vincent’s Services. This is especially important and creative. I realized at a dinner for St Vincent’s this week that I would be simply incapable of assisting anyone in applying for college now.
Also, who do we not see in our pews, or more to the point who do we no longer see? I mean here specially members of St Charles who are now confined to their homes or in nursing or rehabilitation facilities. The most personally disturbing experiences that I have had in my time in St Charles have been the 3 people I have buried who I did not know were good members of the parish but who did not ask for communion and the other means of pastoral care when they were ill. In one case, I passed by her house every time I went to the subway.
Now I understand that things have changed from even when I was newly ordained. At that time, the Priest would bring communion on the first Friday of the month. He often had to visit 30 people in one day. He could spend very little time with each person and it became a very impersonal exercise. Some of us tinkered with this and visited over several days, but it remained still very clerical and given the numbers very infrequent. This not only deprives people of the Eucharist, but is very unbiblical. We read in the letter of St James:
A sick person should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord. (Jas 5:14).
Here, presbyters mean not only priests but all elders and leaders. A member of the parish family should never be abandoned and although the priest represents Jesus in a way no one else can should not have to wait for a priest to bring the Eucharist nor be deprived of the support of fellow parishioners. We ask you to check the St Charles website about a parish initiative to reach out to our home-bound parishioners and to those who are in hospitals, nursing homes and rehab facilities.
Perhaps my question about the difference between the Baptisms of John and of Jesus could not be answered by any clear and distinct ideas, but is answered by what we as the people of God actually do. Have we seen everyone as beloved of God and sought to bring them into our community especially if this means doing something new and different?
The meaning of Baptism into Christ’s Church will not be found in what we have read in the pages of any book – even the Bible – but what we have done in our lives and that of our community.