Monday, January 17, 2011

What You May Not Know About Sunday’s Gospel Reading: The Baptism of Christ

The first two Sunday’s of Ordinary Time presents to us different Gospel readings about the Baptism of Christ. Unlike the feast of Christmas and the Epiphany, the Baptism of Christ is, more often than not, glossed over without a sufficient regard for some important historical or theological considerations. In these next few blogs, it is my hope you will walk away with a greater appreciation of what you heard during the Sunday Liturgy.


One gets the impression from reading the Gospels that St. John the Baptist was highly respected by the Jews. For that reason, among many, he made a superb forerunner of the Messiah. When St. John the Baptist spoke, people listened! Even sixty years after his death, close to the turn of the first century, Josephus, a Jewish historian, wrote the following about this renowned prophet: “Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words. For Herod had killed this good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God.” We sometimes forget that this "good man" came from a priestly family. His mission was not only to point out the person of the Messiah; but he was also to point to the new priesthood. Ironically, St. John the Baptist would not accomplished his mission in the Temple as one would expect. Instead, the river Jordan near the frontiers of the wilderness would serve as his pulpit.

First, it is important to note that the Levitical priesthood in the Old Testament was not so much a matter of personal choice or calling, like it is in the Catholic priesthood, but rather it was transmitted from the father to the son; what is more, a Jewish priest had to belong to the tribe of Levi.

It begs the question: Why is St. John the Baptist baptizing in the river Jordan and not officiating as a priest in the Temple like his father St. Zachariah did? After all, the announcement of his birth had taken place in the Temple. Perhaps, for this reason, St. John the Baptist was an enigma to the Sanhedrin of his day precisely because he was not “John the Priest” (The Sanhedrin was the “Magisterium” or hierarchy of Judaism in the first century). But when, at his circumcision, St. Elizabeth had given this prophet the name of John instead of Zechariah or some other family name, it was an indication that the ministry of St. John would somehow break with tradition.

We take it for granted that St. John the Baptist was…well…a baptizer. It is worth noting, however, that baptism was not a central or commonly practiced ritual in Judaism at the time. With that said, it was one out of three rites of initiation. If a Gentile wanted to become a member of the Jewish Church he had to get circumcised, undergo baptism and then make a sacrificial offering. Baptism, therefore, was seen as having application to outsiders. Reading between the lines, one could infer from the message of St. John the Baptist that the Pharisees and Sadducee's- who came out to hear him preach -would soon be outsiders to the New Covenant; that is, if they did not repent and undergo a new kind of baptism.

Indeed, up to the time of St. John the Baptist's first appearance, the sons and daughters of Abraham were the chosen people of God by virtue of their ethnic heritage and religious affiliation. But all that would change with the New Covenant Church. As Jesus himself would later say, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” Worshiping in Spirit and truth would necessitate repentance from sin and the practice of virtues. The message was clear: Being a descendent of Abraham but not an imitator of Abraham would make one an outsider as far as God's family is concerned.

Although the New Covenant religion would receive its life from the Spirit, it did not dispense from rituals and sacrifice. Indeed, a new priesthood and a clean sacrifice would be inaugurated with the coming of the Messiah. As the prophet Malachi foretold in the Old Testament: “For from the rising of the sun, even to its setting, my name is great among the nations; And everywhere they bring sacrifice to my name, and a pure offering; For great is my name among the nations, says the LORD of hosts.” And St. John, the son of Zechariah, and a descendant of Levi, would point out for all to see the New High Priest. In the Gospel of John, the Baptist said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” And upon this Lamb, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him.”

The preaching of St. John the Baptist helped ushered in a new priest, a new sacrifice, and a new priesthood. Concluding thoughts in the next blog.