First Sunday after the Epiphany
Isa. 43:1-7 • Ps. 29 • Acts 8:14-17 • Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The Gospel reading for this day begins with confusion among the people on whether John might be the Messiah. John recounts to them his role as the forerunner, and tells them that the Messiah, when he comes, will be “more powerful than I” and that he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
The reading then notes that Jesus was one of those who had gone out to John to be baptized, and that as Jesus came out of the water and was praying the heavens were opened, “and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
The liturgical feast of the Baptism of our Lord comes on the “octave day” of Epiphany, suggesting that the Church wishes us to hold them, and the mysteries that they relate to us, together. The theme of the Epiphany, the disclosure of the Messiah to the Gentiles, is extended in the story of Jesus’ baptism. For here, in his baptism, the heavens themselves bear witness to Jesus, in the presence of “all the people” (Luke 3:21) whose hearts were filled with expectation and questioning (v. 15) about the Messiah. Here God speaks to Jesus, for the sake of all the people and their expectation: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus will go on to draw a connection between his baptism and his death (cf. Mark 10:38): just as he goes down into the waters and comes up again, so he will go into the earth and come up again. This connection between baptism and the death and resurrection of the Messiah is taken up by the Apostles and, of course, in the teaching of the Church. St. Paul will call Christian baptism a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Col. 2:12).
Developing the mystical significance of Jesus’ baptism and following a theme of patristic interpretation, Joseph Ratzinger, in the first volume of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, notes that by means of his descent into the earth’s waters, Jesus fulfills an otherwise obscure series of Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah: how he will take control of the earth’s waters, dividing them by his might, and destroying the evil powers that lurk in them (cf. Ps. 74 and Isa. 27:1).
Drawing these threads together, we see a picture of how Jesus’ death judges the creation and drives out the powers that had for a time usurped God’s rightful rule over it (cf. John 12:31). Those corrupting powers no longer have dominion over us because we have participated by faith and baptism in his death and resurrection. The very elements of creation (like water) that had become chaotic and unruly have become, through their encounter with the Messiah, the means by which we are reunited with God.
For the Messiah’s disciples, it all hinges on our incorporation into him. He accomplishes all of this in his own person, but the dynamism of life and freedom that he sets into motion within the world accrues to us by our subsistence “by him, with him, and in him.”
Look It Up
The Old Testament speaks occasionally of dark powers lurking in the earth’s waters which God will, in the fullness of time, destroy. What are these powers?
Think About It
We are incorporated into Jesus’ victory by means of faith and baptism. In what sense is this victory won once and for all in the lives of the faithful, and in what sense is it a victory that we must continually attain to? What are some of the means by which this victory is won in our lives?