Now as the people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not, John answered, saying to all, "I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire."
And with many other exhortations he preached to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, being rebuked by him concerning Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, also added this, above all, that he shut John up in prison.
When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, "You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased."
- Luke 3:15-22
Yesterday, we first read Luke's Preface to his Gospel. Luke writes: Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed. The lectionary then skipped to chapter 3: Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, saying: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'" Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." So the people asked him, saying, "What shall we do then?" He answered and said to them, "He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise." Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Collect no more than what is appointed for you." Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, "And what shall we do?" So he said to them, "Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages."
Now as the people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not, John answered, saying to all, "I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire." My study bible reminds us that fire in this context has the primary meaning of the Holy Spirit, given to the world at Pentecost (see Acts 2:1-4). But John also declares the judgment of Christ. The unquenchable fire that burns the faithless is the same fire of God, the Holy Spirit. They are one. It is the same Power and the same Spirit, says my study bible, which both enlivens the faithful and destroys the faithless. As Christ put it Himself (see Saturday's reading), all depends on acceptance or rejection of this fire, this light, His word, the life of God.
And with many other exhortations he preached to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, being rebuked by him concerning Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, also added this, above all, that he shut John up in prison. Herod the tetrarch is also known as Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. He had divorced his own wife and married his brother Philip's wife, Herodias, while his brother Philip was still living.
When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, "You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased." What is the purpose of the baptism of Jesus? He doesn't need it for repentance. But His baptism accomplishes several things, says my study bible. First, it's an affirmation of John's ministry. In addition, the Father and the Holy Spirit reveal Him as the Christ, God's beloved Son. Jesus shows that He is one of us, God with us, by descending into the waters with the people. It is a prefiguration of His own death, which gives baptism its ultimate meaning of death and rebirth. Jesus' entering the waters works to sanctify the waters of the world for future baptism for all. In addition, this is a fulfillment of many types given in the Old Testament, such as Moses leading the people from bondage through the Red Sea (Exodus 14) and the ark of the covenant carried into the Jordan so people could enter the Promised Land (Joshua 3, 4). Finally, heaven was opened to a world separated from God through sin. By tradition, the Baptism of Christ was celebrated from the early Church on January 6th, the day of Epiphany. This event is an Epiphany ("Manifestation") or Theophany ("God revealed") -- a revelation or "showing" of the Trinity: the Father's voice, the descent of the Holy Spirit, Christ revealed as the Son. My study bible says this is the greatest and clearest public manifestation of God as Trinity in human history. The words spoken by the Father apply also to all who are baptized and live faithfully; sonship is bestowed by adoption and implies not gender but inheritance (Galatians 4:4-7). The Holy Spirit descending like a dove isn't an incarnation, but it is a visible sign, a "showing," for the people. This appearance, says my study bible, fulfills the type prefigured at the Flood. St. Theophan writes, "Just as a dove announced to Noah that God's wrath had ceased, so too the Holy Spirit announces here that Christ has reconciled us to God by sweeping sin away in the flood waters of baptism."
A simple act: a baptism in the waters of the Jordan. We don't know how many people witnessed this scene. We certainly know that it was revealed to John the Baptist, who in turn will guide his disciples to Jesus. Jesus prays, and this event becomes a moment not just for the world, but for the entire cosmos of creation, for heaven and earth. Instantaneously, we can perhaps presume, there is the descent of the Holy Spirit together with the voice of the Father. Who saw? Who heard? To what degree was it immediately understood and by whom? What matters is that we understand and are given the understanding. But in an instant, an act of baptism becomes news for a universe, for dimensions -- if you will -- of life beyond what we know. Heaven and earth are linked in this moment of revelation, of "showing" to the world, that the Son is in our midst, God is among us. It is news for the angels and for all the world: the great good news that links all things. And this is the powerful word and insight here: that in what may appear to be an insignificant moment to those who can't see, who don't know, who haven't taken notice, the world of creation is shaken. A powerful event has taken place. God is brought forth as human being into the world. There could not be more momentous news, not for heaven and not for earth. All the various significance listed above and mentioned by my study bible do not exhaust the potentials inherent in this scene, the meanings imparted to all of us by Jesus' baptism. What does it mean that it comes at the hands of another human being, John the Baptist, chosen and living as the last of the Old Testament prophets? What does it tell us about God's love, that this should happen for us, this great descent of God as one of us? The baptism links all the waters of the world in potential for holiness and blessedness, fit to carry the Spirit to each one of us, and to unlock all the potentials we each must have as "sons of God" as well. A moment in time unlocks the power of everlasting life for each one who will come, who will live His way, follow His path, find the image He gives us. Inexhaustible love flows from this event. And that's the great key: no one can assume limitation where God is present, we do not know to what extent the gifts flow from this single revelation or manifestation of God. What we can do is assume that we can't assume, that this gift will continue to give to each what can't be calculated on human terms nor limited by our assumptions. That is the real power of life in abundance, and we enter into it by prayer as did Jesus. The one and the many are manifest in the Trinity, and in the prayer of Christ into which we also are invited.