Saturday, September 12, 2009

This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

- Matthew 3:13-17

The old kingdom meets the new: the expected One arrives for Baptism. John says he would have prevented this baptism, being unworthy - that it is Jesus who should baptize him. But this particular baptism is for a purpose. Jesus says, 'Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.' The time of fulfillment is at hand, the time of the kingdom is at hand.

In yesterday's reading, John has said of Jesus, 'I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.' This is the language of a slave; in John's culture, a slave would carry a king's sandals. So, John has contrasted himself with Jesus - God's Son, the Messiah. But Jesus, prefiguring the washing of his apostles' feet and many of his sayings about greatness and service, insists that he himself be baptized by John.

In Genesis, it is written that the Spirit of God hovered over the water at the first creation. Here, Jesus himself, the Son, will immerse himself in the waters. What we have is the first instance of sacrament: what is blessed by the presence of the Lord, of the divine or holy, becomes itself blessed and holy. Jesus in this sense prepares the waters of the world for the baptism that is to come, in His name. Again, the gospels reflect a number of times the teaching that it is not the world that defiles, but rather the holy that makes sacred. Baptism itself, in the name of the Lord, also confers this transforming state in us.

Finally the Spirit of God descends, as in an anointing, upon Jesus as he comes up out of the water, and there are the words, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." It is the revelation of the mystery of the kingdom, of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit. In the Eastern church, this is called Epiphany (a manifestation or revelation), or Theophany (a manifestation of God). The phrase, ''This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased" is a composite quotation from Ps. 2:7, "You are my Son, today I have begotten You," and Is. 42:1, "Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One, in whom My soul delights!" My study bible notes that the substitution of "Son" for "Servant" is a revelation of deity. So we also note the echo of Isaiah's Suffering Servant, and Jesus' example of service, which would characterize greatness in his kingdom "not of this world." The Spirit, descending upon Jesus in the form of the dove, the Voice of the Father, and Jesus as incarnate Son, baptized and anointed: these combine in this event to reveal the Holy Trinity - the intimation of the kingdom to come, and the age to come. Mystery reveals itself at this meeting of the old and new.

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