Page 5, 11th January 1985

11th January 1985
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Page 5, 11th January 1985 — Baptism confirms
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Baptism confirms

Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 Acts 10:34-38 Mark I:7-11 The Baptism of the Lord

(First Sunday of the Year) THE FIRST Sunday of the year is always a celebration of our Lord's baptism, that spirit-filled inauguration of the gospel mission. Mark's account, and this is a characteristic of his gospel as a whole, is the simplest of the four (the baptism of the Lord is one of those rare events to be recounted by all four evangelists).

Mark's gospel has opened with the account of John the Baptist's mission; but the account is so constructed that the real object of attention is not John himself, but Jesus, whose way he prepares, the mightier one who comes after him, whose shoe John is not ready to undo, whose baptism is greatly superior to John's own because it is a baptism by the Holy Spirit.

After this scene-setting, Jesus appears on the scene, and the way in which he is introduced gives us a profound sense of a new beginning: "and it happened in those days; there came Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee, and he was baptised into the Jordan by John".

John has ceased to have any importance here, and recedes entirely into the background (unlike Matthew's gospel, where initially John refuses, out of courtesy, to baptise Jesus, in Mark there is no delay), The early Christians could not deny that Jesus had been baptised by John; but they had no desire to make too much of it.

This becomes clearer still in the next verse: "and immediately coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens dividing, and the Spirit coming down on him like a dove." This is something that happens for Jesus, and not for anyone else, in contrast to Luke, for whom it is an event in the public domain, or John, who does not mention the descent of the Spirit, but has the Baptist publicly testify to Jesus' exalted status.

For Mark it is Jesus and Jesus alone who is at this moment given the sign that authenticates his mission; the coming-down of the Spirit is in Old and New Testaments alike a confirmation that God is at work, from Elisha to Pentecost.

Likewise the rending of the heavens symbolises that the barrier between the divine and the human domains has been removed. It is worth noting that Mark achieves the same effect, using the same Greek verb, in his account of the death of Jesus: "and the veil of the Temple was rent in two, from top to bottom".

Not only that, but there is a voice from heaven; it is not clear whether or not Mark wishes us to understand that this voice was heard by all. What is essential is that the voice from heaven was always understood as providing divine confirmation .

What the voice says, of course, is echoed later in this gospel, at the Transfiguration, which also serves as an authentication of Jesus' mission, for his "inner cabinet", of Peter, James and John. Here the words are addressed to Jesus alone, and they echo various OT passages, of which perhaps the most important is Psalm 2, which in the Jewish liturgy functioned as a testimony that the newlycrowned king was that day adopted by God.

This episode tells us at the very least how seriously Mark takes the episode of Jesus' baptism. This is clearly going to be a person to watch as the gospel unfolds.




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