January 06, 2010

Baptism of the Lord

By Brian Pizzalato *
First ReadingIs 42:1-4, 6-7

Responsorial PsalmPs 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10

Second ReadingActs 10:34-38

Gospel ReadingLk 3:15-16, 21-22


Elijah/John the Baptist and Elisha/Jesus

Let’s dive immediately into the Old Testament background of the Baptism of Jesus, the feast we celebrate this Sunday.

With regard to this entire narrative, Luke wants us to recognize that John the Baptist is the new Elijah. John, the new Elijah, says that after him comes someone mightier than himself. Who was mightier than the first Elijah? The answer is his protégé and successor, Elisha as described in 2 Kings.

Luke intends for us to see parallels between Elijah and John the Baptist, Elisha and Jesus. Let us look at a few of the parallels between Elisha and Jesus.

  1. Both receive the spirit at the Jordan (2 Kgs 2:9-14; Lk 3:21-22).

  2. Both had itinerant ministries.

  3. Both had disciples.

  4. Both challenged the political powers of their day.

  5. Elisha is anointed by Elijah to be his successor; Jesus is anointed by the new Elijah at the Jordan (1 Kgs 19:16; Lk 4:18).

  6. The miracles of Elisha and Jesus miracles.

    1. Both raise the dead (2 Kgs 4:32-37; Lk 7:11-17).

    2. Both multiply bread (2 Kgs 4:42-43; Lk 9:10-17).

    3. Both cleanse lepers (2 Kgs 5:1-14; Lk 5:12-16).

  7. The King of Syria seeks to kill Elisha, but God sends an army of angels to defend him (2 Kgs 6:11-17). – Jesus’ life is sought and he mentions that he could call down 12 legions of angels (Mt 26:53).

  8. A dead man is thrown into the tomb of Elisha and is restored to life (2 Kgs 13:20-21) – When we are baptized we are baptized into the death of Christ so as to rise to newness of life (Rom 6:3-4). Also, we who eat the body and drink the blood of Christ are given life (Jn 6:47-56).

The Jordan and Joshua

Luke, along with Matthew and Mark, call to mind Elijah and Elisha so we hearken back to an earlier event in Israel’s history. When Elijah and Elisha come to the Jordan we are told that Elijah "took his coat rolled it up, and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground" (2 Kgs 2:8).

After Elijah’s departure, Elisha "took up the coat of Elijah…and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan…and when he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other; and Elisha went over" (2 Kgs 2:13, 14b).

This is reminiscent of when Joshua led the People of God through the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

It is no coincidence that Jesus’ and Joshua’s name in Hebrew is Yeshua, which means Yahweh’s salvation. Joshua leads them through the Jordan. How? "…The waters of the Jordan shall be stopped from flowing, and the waters coming down from above shall stand in one heap" (Jo 3:13b). Then we are told that all Israel passed over on dry ground (cf. Jo 3:17).

Jesus/Joshua will also lead the way into the Promised Land beginning with his receiving of the Spirit at the Jordan. He will lead you and me into the true Promised Land, heaven, through the waters of Baptism.

Jesus’ Baptism and the Kings of Israel and Judah

Now let’s unpack even more of what is going on in the Baptism of the Lord.

This event would hearken back to the reception of the Spirit by the Kings of Israel and Judah at their royal anointing. For example, there is David himself. "Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward" (1 Sm 16:13).

The Baptism of Jesus is his royal anointing when the Spirit of the Lord comes mightily upon him (cf. Lk 4:18). The second reading for this Sunday from Acts speaks to this. "You know the word which he sent to the sons of Israel…how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power" (Acts 10:36a, 38a).

This shows us that Jesus is truly in the line of the Davidic kings, and thus he is the fulfillment of the covenant made with David (cf. 2 Sm 7).

It is also not a fluke that the kings were called messiahs, anointed ones, because they were anointed by the Spirit.

Also important for our understanding is that the Davidic kings were also considered to be adopted son of God. We see this, for example, in Psalm 2 when speaking to the king the Lord says, "You are my son, today I have begotten you…" (v. 7).

The anointed servant of the Lord

Here we come to a specific connection with the Old Testament reading for this Sunday taken from the prophet Isaiah. God says through Isaiah, "Behold 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 (42:1). Jesus is fulfilling this prophecy of Isaiah.

But, what is this servant meant to do? We learn some important things later in Isaiah. "And the Lord says, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him…‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’" (49:5-6).

Further on in Isaiah we understand that this servant will be a suffering servant. But he will be one who suffers for the sins of others, not for any sin of his own. "Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed…the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (53:4-6).

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "The baptism of Jesus is on his part the acceptance and inauguration of his mission as God’s suffering Servant" (536).

Brian Pizzalato is the Director of Catechesis, R.C.I.A. & Lay Apostolate, Diocese of Duluth and is a faculty member of the Philosophy department of the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, England.

Brian writes a monthly column, “Veritatis Splendor,” for The Northern Cross of the Diocese of Duluth and his 33-part series on the sacraments for The Northern Cross have also been posted on Catholic News Agency's website, where he also authors a weekly column, “Road to Emmaus,” on the Sunday Readings, (which are translated into Romanian and posted on www.profamilia.ro).

Pizzalato is currently authoring the regular series, "Catechesis and Contemporary Culture," in The Sower, published by the Maryvale Institute. He is also author of the Philosophy of Religion course book for the B.A. in Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition at the Maryvale Institute.

Brian holds an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry with a Catechetics specialization and an M.A. in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. Brian currently pursuing an M.A. in Biblical Studies at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO as well as being a Ph.D. candidate at the Maryvale Institute. Brian is married and has six children.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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