1st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle A)
THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD

Readings:
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Psalm 29:1b-4, 9-10
Acts 10:34-38
Matthew 3:13-17

Abbreviations: NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for humanity, and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095). 

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: The Servant of God
Today we celebrate Jesus' Baptism by St. John the Baptist in the waters of the Jordan River.  In St. Matthew's Gospel, he relates Jesus' baptism as another epiphany (manifestation) of Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Servant-Son of God promised by the prophets.  Jesus is the Servant-Son that the 8th century BC prophet Isaiah describes in our first reading: a man sent by God to serve others and to bless the people with peace (our psalm reading).  But this blessing is not just for Israel.  It is a universal blessing and the promise of the gift of salvation for all mankind.  St. Peter testified to God's gift of universal salvation through the Sacrament of Christian baptism.  In our second reading, St. Peter speaks of God's gift of salvation to Jews and Gentiles as he prepares to baptize the men, women, and children who had come to accept Jesus as Savior and Lord in the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius.

The First Reading Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 ~ The Servant of Yahweh
1 Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations, 2 not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street.  3 A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, until he established justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for his teaching. 
6 I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice, I have grasped you, by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, 7 to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.

Our first reading from the Old Testament is from the first of the four "Servant Songs" found in the book of the 8th century BC prophet Isaiah (see Is 42:1-7; 49:1-7; 50:4-11 and 52:13-53:12).  The Old Covenant people of God believed the "Servant Songs" spoke of the promised Davidic King-Messiah.  Modern Jews see the "servant" as Israel, but the Holy Spirit inspired Gospel writers, the other New Testament inspired writers, Jesus Himself, and Christian tradition identify the fulfillment of these prophecies in the "the chosen one" (Is 42:1) who is the "Servant of God" Jesus Christ (see Mt 3:16-17; 8:1711:2-5;  Lk 2:32; 4:16-21; Jn 1:32-34; 1 Pt 2:24-25; etc.).   The four "Servant Song" passages speak of the Servant in the singular as a Messiah sent by God to brings healing and justice to the people (first Servant Song) and who offers his life as a sacrifice for their sins (fourth Servant Song).  There are other prophecies in the "songs" that are not fulfilled in the corporate covenant people of Israel but are perfectly fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth (see the chart at Isaiah's Messianic Prophecies).

In our first reading, God's Servant is presented as a prophet with a mission and a divine destiny (verse 6) who is anointed by God's Holy Spirit (verse 1) to teach the world (verses 1 and 3).  He is to teach gently but firmly, without crushing the fragile spirit of those who are weak (verses 2-3).  He is to teach despite opposition to His mission, and His mission will transcend the mission of other prophets as God's supreme prophet since He is Himself both the "light" (verse 6, also see Lk 1:78-79; Jn 1:5, 7-9; 8:12; 9:5) and the bearer of a divine covenant (verse 6, also see Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25) that will bring healing, liberation, and salvation to the people (verse 7, also see Lk 2:32; 4:16-21; 7:22; Acts 4:12; 1 Thes 5:9; etc.).  The early Church Father, St. Justin Martyr (died c. 155 AD), wrote concerning Isaiah 42:6-7: "Everything that is said here, my friends, refers to Christ and to the peoples who have been enlightened by his presence" (Dialogus cum Tryphone, 122.2).

Responsorial Psalm 29:1b-4, 9-10 ~ Yahweh is Acclaimed King of the Earth

The response is: "The Lord will bless his people with peace."
1b Give to the LORD, you sons of God, give to the LORD glory and praise, 2 give to the LORD the glory due his name; adore the LORD in holy attire.
3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters, the LORD, over vast waters.  4 The voice of the LORD is mighty; the voice of the LORD is majestic.
9 The God of glory thunders, and in his temple all say, "Glory!"  10 The LORD is enthroned above the flood; the LORD is enthroned as king forever.

God divine covenant Name, YHWH [Yahweh], is repeated 18 times in Psalm 29.  This hymn of praise invites the members of the heavenly assembly (angels who are collectively "sons of God") to acknowledge God's supreme sovereignty over the heavens and the earth.  They are invited to acknowledge God's supremacy by crying out "Glory" in the heavenly Temple to God the eternal King (verses 1b-2a and 9b-10). 

Psalms 29:3-4 ~ The voice of the LORD is over the waters, the LORD, over vast waters.  4 The voice of the LORD is mighty; the voice of the LORD is majestic.
The phrase "the voice of Yahweh" is repeated seven times in verses 3-9 and is probably meant to suggest the sound of thunder (verse 9a) just as the Israelites heard God's voice as thunder in the Theophany at Mt. Sinai (Ex 19:16, 19).  The "voice" or Presence "of Yahweh" "over vast waters" is also probably a reminder of presence of God's Spirit over the waters of Creation in Genesis 1:1 as He began the Creation event. 

Psalms 29:9-10 ~ 9 The God of glory thunders, and in his temple all say, "Glory!"  10 The LORD is enthroned above the flood; the LORD is enthroned as king forever.
The angels, who have witnessed God's supreme power (3-9a), acknowledge that the King of the universe is enthroned forever with their cry of praise, "Glory!" (verses 9b-10).  Their praise to God in the heavenly Temple has the same beginning as the hymn of praise the angels sang at the birth of the Christ-child in Luke 2:14 that began with the word "Glory."  We repeat their cry of praise and joy in our Lord God in singing the "Gloria" in the celebration of the Mass.

The Second Reading Acts 10:34-38 ~ Jesus' Gift of Universal Salvation to Believers
34 Peter proceeded to speak to those gathered in the house of Cornelius, saying: "In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.  35 Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.  36 You know the word that he sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all, 37 what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached, 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.  He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him."

This is the Apostle Peter's fifth kerygmatic address (Greek, kerygma = proclamation, from keryks = herald].  This speech to the assembly of "God-fearing" Gentiles in the home of the Roman centurion Cornelius (verses 34-43) has the same basic outline as St. Peter's other proclamations of Jesus as Lord and Savior.  The basic kerygmatic message is:

  1. Jesus was sent by God and anointed by the Holy Spirit to be Lord and Messiah.
  2. He did what was good and healed those in need of physical and spiritual healing.
  3. He was put to death by men but arose from the dead on the third day.
  4. He appeared to His disciples and commissioned them to preach in His name.
  5. Whoever believes in Him and is baptized in His name will receive forgiveness of sins.

But what is unique about this message is that it is addressed to Gentiles, and St. Peter acknowledges that God shows no partiality in that every nation who fears Him and acts righteously is acceptable to Him (verses 34-35).  The extending of the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ to the Gentiles is in fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, as St. Peter states to the group of Romans that he is about to baptize: To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10:43; underlining added).

The Gospel of Matthew 3:13-17 ~ The Baptism of Jesus by St. John the Baptist
13 Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.  14 John tried to prevent him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?"  15 Jesus said to him in reply, "Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Then he allowed him.  16 After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him.  17 And a voice came from the heavens, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

Jesus' baptism took place on the east bank of the Jordan across from Jericho near the site where the children of Israel camped before Joshua/Yehoshua led them across the river from the east to the west and into the Promised Land.  After His baptism, Jesus had to cross the river from the east into west to return to Judea.  This action heralds Jesus as the new Joshua/Yehoshua (His Hebrew name), leading His people on a new Exodus that will result in the promise of entering the Promised Land of heaven. 

Matthew 3:14 ~  John tried to prevent him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?" 

St. John was hesitant to give Jesus his baptism of repentance because John recognized that Jesus was without sin and therefore had no reason to repent.

Matthew 3:15 ~ Jesus said to him in reply, "Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Then he allowed him. 
The words "fulfill/fulfilled," found 18 times in St. Matthew's Gospel, refer to the fulfillment of Scripture and the fulfillment of God's divine plan.  In the Bible "righteousness" is defined as obedience to God.  Jesus being baptized by John is "fitting" and "righteous" because John and Jesus are submitting themselves to the Father's will in fulfilling this aspect of God's plan of salvation.  Jesus' baptism by John is part of His acceptance of His mission and His inauguration as God's Servant-Son who has come to heal and bring justice to the people.  He has come among sinners: prostitutes, thieves, tax collectors, etc., to allow Himself to be numbered among them and is already anticipating His bloody baptism though which they can be forgiven their sins.

Jesus' baptism prefigures Christian baptism which is also different from John's baptism of repentance for the Old Covenant people of God (see Jn 3:3-5; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Tit 3:5; CCC 1026, 1214-15).  Jesus' baptism is an anointing by the Holy Spirit in preparation for His divine mission as God's supreme prophet, priest, and king who is bringing liberation and salvation to His people (CCC 783, 1261).  In Christian baptism, the water symbolizes the catechumen's burial into Christ's death, from which he rises up by resurrection with Christ as a "new creature" (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; CCC 1214, 1266).  In this "first resurrection," the Christian receives the "washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit" in which the believer experiences a new birth through water and the Spirit (Jn 3:3, 5) "without which no one can enter the kingdom of God" (Jn 3:5; Tit 3:5; CCC 1215).   Through the Sacrament of Baptism, Jesus Christ makes New Covenant believers (who remain faithful to His will) partners in His glorification (CCC 1026).

Matthew 3:16 ~  After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him.  17 And a voice came from the heavens, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
This event is the manifestation (epiphany) of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God (see CCC 535-37) and is the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:1 in the first Servant Song:  Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit...  Three things happened at the moment Jesus came up out of the water:

  1. The heavens opened
  2. The Spirit of God descended like a dove and came upon Him
  3. A voice was heard from heaven

It is significant that Scripture records that the heavens opened.  Since the time of the Fall of man in the sin of Adam, the heavens were closed.  But with Jesus baptism by John, which anticipates Jesus baptism of blood in His crucifixion, the gates of Heaven are again opened.  It is a vision the inspired writer of the book of Revelation will see when he is taken in the spirit up into the heavenly court: After this I had a vision of an open door to heaven, and I heard the trumpet-like voice that had spoken to me before, saying, "Come up here and I will show you what must happen afterwards."  At once I was caught up in Spirit (Rev 4:1-2a NJB; emphasis added).

The Catechism teaches: ... At his baptism "the heavens were opened," the heavens that Adam's sin had closed, and the waters were sanctified by the descent of Jesus and the Spirit, a prelude to the new creation (CCC 536, also see 1026).  Heaven was completely opened to righteous mankind by Jesus' death and Resurrection, which the Christian experiences through the sacramental rite of Christian baptism. 

It is also significant that the Spirit of God appeared taking the form of a dove (also see Mk 1:10; Jn 1:32).  It recalls the event after the Great Flood in Genesis 8:8-12.  God sent the waters of the Great Flood to address man's sin, cleansing the earth of the contamination of sin to give mankind (through Noah's family) a new beginning (Gen 6:5-8, 11-13).  The Fathers of the Church interpreted the cleansing waters of the flood as prefiguring Christian baptism.  At the end of the flood, Noah released a dove (Gen 8:8-12).  The dove flew over the waters of chaos but found no place to land.  The second time Noah released the dove, it returned to him with a green sprig in its beak from an olive tree, a sign that the renewed earth was habitable again.  When Jesus came up out of the water after His baptism, God the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove and remained with Him.  This event signified and prefigured the new creation that the Sacrament of Christian baptism will confer upon believers when the Spirit comes down and remains "in the purified hearts of the baptized" (CCC 701).  For Christians the dove has become a sign of the Holy Spirit, and He is always depicted this way in Christian iconography.

In this passage, for the first time in salvation history, a central mystery of Christian faith is revealed: the mystery of the Holy Trinity is revealed in Jesus' baptism.  God the Father's voice is heard from heaven, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and Jesus, God the Son, is present.  The significance of the event is:

  1. Jesus' baptism becomes His anointing as the Davidic-Messiah.
  2. It is the confirmation of His divine Sonship.
  3. It is a sign that prefigures Christian baptism.

According to the Gospel of John, a few days later Jesus returned to the site of His baptism, and St. John the Baptist identified Jesus to the crowd as the promised Messiah; "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (Jn 1:29-34).  Jesus baptism is the beginning of His public ministry.  In His baptism, the Spirit of God, which Jesus possessed in fullness from His conception, publically came to rest upon Him (Jn 1:32-33; Is 11:2) as evidence that Jesus is the source of the Spirit of God for all humanity.

Catechism References:
Isaiah 42:1 (CCC 536, 555); 42:3 (CCC 580); 42:6 (CCC 580)
Psalm 29:2 (CCC 2143)
Acts 10:35 (CCC 761); 10:38 (CCC 438, 453, 486, 1289)
Matthew 3:13-17 (CCC 535, 1286); 3:13 (CCC 1223); 3:14-15 (CCC 608); 3:15 (CCC 536, 1224); 3:16-17 (CCC 1224); 3:16 (CCC 536, 701); 3:17 (CCC 444, 713

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2013