Being Dominican

The Light of Baptism

by Fr. Benedict Ashley, OP

The First
Luminous Mystery

 The Baptism of Christ
The Apostolic Letter only briefly touches on the individual mysteries. The Holy Father says (n, 22), "Each of these mysteries is a revelation of the Kingdom now present in the very person of Jesus." Then of the first it says:

    The Baptism in the Jordan is first of all a mystery of light. Here,  Christ descends into the waters, the innocent one who became "sin" for our sake (Cf. 2 Cor 5:21), the heavens open wide and the voice of the Father declares him the beloved son (cf. Mt 3:17 and parallels), while the spirit descends on him to invest him with the mission which he is to carry out.

Mary was not present at this great event, but she must have known that her son had gone down to the Jordan with the crowds to hear John the Baptist. Later she must have heard what happened about it from the Beloved Disciple to whom Jesus entrusted her on the Cross. This disciple, traditionally believed to be the Apostle John, who at that time was a follower of the Baptist and who with Andrew brought Simon Peter to Jesus (Jn 1:29-42). These young men had heard the Baptist mysteriously declare Jesus to be "the Lamb of God." Remember too that thirty years before when Mary had offered her newborn son in the Temple, Simeon had told her that some day that little child would become the cause of the rise and fall of many in Israel and that her own heart would be pierced "so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed (Lk 2:35). It is the Evangelist Luke who recounts this story that he may have heard, when he visited Jerusalem with St. Paul (Acts 21-17) and remained in Israel for about two years (Acts 27:1), from Mary herself or from those who knew her. Thus Mary must have been profoundly moved to hear her son described by the Baptist as the sacrificial Lamb of God. Her family relationship with Elizabeth and Zachary must have made her also interested in their son John as he grew up, went into the desert, and at last, at about the same age as Jesus, began to preach that the "Kingdom of God is at hand."

The Jews had for centuries hoped for the Messiah predicted by the prophets. They thought of him as an earthly ruler, a king who would free them from oppression and bring peace and prosperity to Israel. At a time when the occupation of the land by the Romans was especially oppressive, this hope had been rekindled. So some asked John if he was perhaps the Messiah. He answered.

    "I baptize you with water, but one is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." (Lk 3:16).

Thus already the Christian sacrament of baptism that Jesus was to institute is described as fire from heaven, a fire that is at once purifying and illuminating. Later Jesus was to cry out,

    "I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed. Do you think that I have come to bring preach to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division." Lk 12:49-51)

This repeats Simeon's prophecy to Mary that Jesus would be a "sign of contradiction" like a light that clearly shows us the difference between good and evil. It also shows that for Jesus his baptism had meant the beginning of a terrible struggle between good and evil that would bring him to the Cross.

When in the crowd at the Jordan, John saw the young carpenter, Jesus, who with other young men from Galilee had come to hear John preach, John must have recognized his kinsman, who was of the same age as himself, although they had probably been separated for some years. When John says of Jesus as he approached to be baptized that "I did not know him" (Jn 1:31), this is to be understood as meaning that John was not yet certain that Jesus was the one that he, John, had been called to proclaim. During the long time that they were both growing up the events of Jesus birth and infancy had become dim in the minds of all but Mary and Joseph. Even they were uncertain what these events meant, as is evident in the Fifth Joyful Mystery, the Finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2:50).

Therefore when Jesus came forward to be baptized, John was filled with awe. He no doubt had heard something of Jesus' story from his parents and perhaps had even met him during the years they were growing up. Perhaps he had long puzzled over all this and knew of the reputation in the family of what a good and devout Jew Jesus was. Now the prophetic light that filled John's mind, prepared by years of silent contemplation in the desert, he was assured, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit" (Jn 1:33). Now John, filled with sense of his own utter unworthiness, confessed to Jesus, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" Jesus quietly replied, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." (Mt. 3: 13-14). By saying "for us" he was asking to be treated just as a member of the repentant crowd, not as different from the rest, although he alone among them was without need of repentance.

    And when Jesus had been baptized, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." (Mt 3:16).

From Mark's (3:16) account "just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens opened to him" we would only know that this vision was seen only by Jesus; bu the Fourth Gospel (1:32) assures us that the Baptist also witnessed it.  Matthew, just quoted and Luke (3:21-22) record it also as a public manifestation to those present at the Jordan, since "a voice from heaven" was the traditional sign of the authenticity of a prophet. Thus Jesus is declared as a true prophet, yet greater than all other prophets (Jn 12:28-30).

In this vision the opening of the heavens signifies that the barrier of sin between the creation and its holy Creator is now breached. The dove that descends is a symbol of the Holy Spirit derived first from the creation account in Genesis 1:1 in which the "spirit of God hovers over the waters" like a wind, or creative breath of life, or like a bird with outstretched wings and second from the dove of peace (Genesis 8:8-12) that was a sign to Noah of God's mercy on his creation after its sin. The voice of God, says, "This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased." This refers to two Old Testament passages concerning the Messiah:

    I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
    He said to me, "You are my son;
    Today I have begotten you.
    Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    And the ends of the earth your possession. (Ps 2: 7-8)

    Here is my servant, [same word as "son"] whom I uphold,
    My chosen one in whom my soul delights;
    I have put my spirit upon him;
    He will bring forth justice to the nations. (Is 42: 1).

Go to Next Page

Untitled Document
Home | Contact Us| DLC |
Dominican Life | USA is a project of the Dominican Leadership Conference,
the networking organization of Dominican leaders in the US. Since the time of St Dominic, more than 800 years ago,
Dominicans have been living and sharing the message of the Gospel.
Today thousands of sisters, nuns, priests, brothers, associates, and laity minister in more than 100 countries around the globe.

Copyright 2006