Gospel (B): Mark 1:7-11
A Moment of Clarity
Have you ever had a moment of clarity, when you could see things as they really were?
While we live most of our lives in a muddle, we can experience those rare times when everything snaps into focus. Sometimes, we have these insights in prayer, sometimes in relationship, sometimes in the overlooked details of daily living. Sometimes those moments are fleeting. Sometimes they are life-changing.
At the moment Jesus rose from the waters of his baptism, he had such a moment. That moment changed everything forever.
7 John always preached, "Someone who has more power than I will soon come after me. I am not worthy to even bend down and loosen his sandal strap. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit!"
9 During that time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan river. 10 When Jesus came out of the water, he saw the sky open at that moment and the Holy Spirit come down like a dove. The Spirit entered Jesus. 11 There was a sound from heaven. "You are my Son, the sound announced, "I love you and I am very pleased with you!"
7 And he preached, saying, "The ONE stronger than I comes after me; of WHOSE sandals I am not worthy, having bent (down), to loosen the straps. 8 I baptize you with water. HE, however, will baptize you in the Holy Spirit."
9 And it happened in those days, JESUS came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. 10 And coming out of the water, HE immediately saw the heavens split apart and the Spirit as a dove coming down into HIM. 11 And there was a sound out of heaven, "YOU are my beloved SON. In YOU I am delighted."
1:7 " . . . of whose sandals I am not worthy, having bent (down), to loosen the straps . . . " can also be translated " . . . I am not worthy, having bent (down) to loosen the straps of his sandals." The clause has two possessive pronouns referring to "sandals": "whose" and "his."
1:8 The word "baptize" literally means to "immerse." John immersed the sinner into repentance with water. But the Messiah would immerse the follower in the Holy Spirit.
1:11 "And there was a sound out of heaven . . . " is literally "And a sound happened out of heaven . . . "
In Mark, Jesus first appeared at his baptism. While Matthew and Luke shared this story, Mark was unique for his brevity and his symbolism. Mark seemed to write in shorthand. He assumed his readers would understand his meaning. And the symbols (water, heavens opening, descent of the Spirit, and voice from heaven) support the first verse of Mark's gospel: "...the Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God."
In five verses, this Sunday's gospel turned the focus from John to Jesus. John always preached the same message, "One more powerful is coming!" And he always baptized as a challenge for repentance. But, in a culture focused upon the present, John looked forward. He foresaw the baptism of the Spirit, God's very life, through the Messiah. [1:7-8; see the study from 2 Advent, Cycle B for more details on these verses]
In the next three verses, Mark put the light on Jesus. He came from Nazareth and was baptized. Then, the heavens were split open (literally "to tear apart" in Greek), the Spirit descended into him, and a sound from heaven declared Jesus as " . . . my beloved Son, in whom I am delighted." Notice a few details, however. First, in 1:10-11, Jesus saw these three events occur almost instantaneously (this is the power of the word "immediately" in 1:10). This was a moment of revelation for him. Hence, he was the witness. Second, the open heavens, the descending Spirit, and the voice of approval indicate that the power of God was not longer contained in the realm of the transcendent. No, God's power overflowed into the mundane lives of people. God was close. Third, Jesus was the focal point of God's overflowing power. The Spirit descended not upon, but within Jesus. The inner dwelling Spirit was Mark's claim that Jesus was the Christ, God's beloved Son.
While Jesus was the primary witness to these events, Mark inferred the event was public in nature. In other words, others saw what Jesus did. Others were present when God tore firmament of the sky apart so heaven and earth were one. (As a note of interest, contemporaries of Jesus believed the firmament of the sky held back the primordial water; when the heavens were opened, the water fell to earth as rain. Now, when the sky opened, the flood was God's Spirit.)
These also witnessed the Spirit coming into Jesus. The flood of God's power had one distinct point. From that point, the Spirit would flow into every creature.
Finally, a sound like thunder proclaimed the status of Jesus as God's Son. Mark used two redundant adjectives ("beloved" and "well pleasing") to make the same point. In his words, God himself legitimized Jesus' title, status, and mission. Others saw this public declaration. [1:9-11]
Why was the public nature of this act important? A public declaration of kinship was necessary for questions of legitimacy. In the time of Jesus, people had a limited knowledge of procreation. While they certainly understood how a wife conceived in union with her husband, they could not prove legitimacy of an heir. (In a male dominated, gender segregated society, men had a mistrust of their mates' moral character. While we have blood tests and DNA screening, men only had the word of their wives.) Since men held the all political and cultural power, only a father could declare his wife's child a "son." (In Judaism, the rite of circumcision provided the stage for this declaration. Eight days after birth, a son was circumcised and named by his father before God. The rite not only brought the boy into a covenant relationship with God, it brought the boy into a relationship with his father.)
Unlike Luke and Matthew who saw Jesus as God's Son from birth, Mark began the Son-ship of Jesus from his public reception of the Spirit. It began with his baptism and continued in his ministry.
Catechism Theme: The Baptism of Jesus (CCC 535-537)
Why was Jesus baptized by John? The immersion of Jesus in the Jordan revealed his place, his power, and his mission. Since his baptism was witnessed by John's audience, sinners, his place was with the sin-filled, his power was for the sinner, and his mission was to the sinner. Jesus came to save the lost. So, he began his ministry in an act of solidarity with the lost.
His baptism colored the rest of his life. It foreshadowed his ministry as the "Suffering Servant" (see Isaiah 53). Being counted with sinners in baptism, he would die as a sinner. As he rose from the water, he would rise from the grave.
If we were to really answer the question of Jesus' baptism, however, we could sum it up in one word: Spirit. Jesus' baptism released God's Spirit in a new way. No longer was God's Spirit reserved for the few he chose. Through Jesus, the Spirit would be offered to all.
When we were baptized, God offered us the same revelation he made to Jesus: a flood of his very life, his indwelling Spirit, and the status of beloved and well-pleasing child.
Have you had any moments of clarity about your relationship with God? What moments of grace have you experienced? How have these moments changed you? How did those moments affirm your baptism and your life as a Christian?
While our moments of focus come in a private manner, our moment of revelation, baptism, is public. While it may not have been an overwhelming experience (indeed, we may not have even remembered it), baptism does loom over us as a turning point. God offered us the same relationship he had with Jesus. He gave us (and continues to give us) a choice for the Spirit and for divine childhood. The baptism of Jesus is our template.
The choice for baptism means to act as God's child. How can you act as His child? Choose one or two ways for this coming week.