Some things, once seen, remain etched in memory. Even though very few of us were present and personally witnessed them, some things cannot be unseen – the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy; 9-11; the killing of George Floyd; the anguish of a parent, child, spouse, or friend witnessing the death of a loved one; and now, the deliberate attack on the U.S. Capitol building. We remember happy times, joyful events, and occasions of rare heroism, devotion, and care. But tragedies and catastrophes overshadow them, no doubt because of the overwhelming power of negative emotions — horror, fear, anger — felt repeatedly as the social media broadcast such dismaying images over and over.
We come away from witnessing such events, even so mediated, burdened with sorrow and possibly hopelessness, fearful of our countrymen and for the future. We now hear commentators and pundits claiming that “democracy is fragile.” I submit that democracy is not fragile, it is strong and robust, and survives assaults on its very foundations, wounded perhaps, but resolute. Democracy is not fragile, but it is vulnerable.
On this day, the last Sunday of the Christmas cycle, when Christians around the world commemorate the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his public
ministry, it is well to remember that goodness and nobility of purpose are not only possible, but at work in the world. The grace of God is always available. We do not have to succumb to the forces of hatred, bigotry, and self aggrandizement at the expense of the common good. [See Is 42:1-4,6-7, Acts 10:34-38, Mk 1:7-11.]
The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River made so indelible an impression that it is described in all four gospels, something of a rarity. It is also alluded to in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles appointed for today and finds mention elsewhere in that work . Mark’s description, the oldest of all, skips the dialogue between Jesus and John and cuts to the point, the divine testimony of Jesus’ identity. It is not evident whether Mark is referring to a vision John had or if only Jesus saw the sky opened and the Holy Spirit descending “like a dove” on (or over) Jesus. John’s gospel makes it clear: “John [the Baptizer] bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him” [John 1:32]. But Mark tells us that the Voice, also heard in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, is to Jesus himself: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” [Mark 1:11]. You are my son…
Here, the stirring words of Isaiah find their application and fulfilment: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations”:
“I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness” [Is 42:1, 6-7].
The gospels testify that it is at his baptism that Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the ‘Christ’ — words which mean in both Hebrew and Greek “the anointed one.” In Jewish tradition, the Messiah was anointed to identify him as the one through whom God would save the Chosen People. And that is also why every new Christian is anointed with holy oil when baptized. A Voice may not come from heaven, but each is recognized and proclaimed as God’s very child.
At first glance today’s second reading doesn’t seem to have much to do with all this – it is part of the story of the first non-Jewish converts to Christ, the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family and household. But it is very relevant at this moment, especially that wonderful saying, “God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him” [Acts 10:34-35. See 1 Cor 12:12-14 and Gal 3:27-29]. Peter has just realized that no one is to be refused baptism — everyone is called to Christ. And so the great door of salvation was thrown open to all peoples everywhere and forever.
Peter also recalls that it was after Jesus’ baptism that he began his saving work – “…God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; … he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” [Acts 10:38]. And so it is with those called to be one in Christ Jesus: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” [Rom 6:3-4].
The Baptism of Jesus coveys a message of resolute hope in the midst of whatever catastrophes life may throw in our path. Democracy may be shaken to its foundations, but so long as people of faith and good will hold fast, “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”