Sunday Scripture: The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Welcome to this, the twenty-fifth of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you. You might find that it answers a few questions you may have, but most of all I hope that it will show you how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps enable you to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted it is, and what a carefully considered part of the Mass the readings are.

If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will usually find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

My reflections are not definitive, but based on my study and perhaps authenticated by careful reference to the Biblical Commentaries and books I list at the bottom each week.

This is one of those awkward weeks where there are alternative readings. I'm just going to go with the first lot!

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

The Ministry of Light and Life.

This is the River Jordan as it is today.

  • First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7.
  • Psalm 28: 1-4, 9-10; Response: v. 11.
  • Second Reading: Acts 10:34-38.
  • Gospel: Luke 3:15-16, 21-22.
First, a short preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

The Book of Isaiah as we know it today in the Bible is actually a collection of writings which represent a tradition that extended over a span of some three hundred years. The whole text can be sub-divided into three major parts: (i) Isaiah 1-39, for the most part, presenting the teaching of the prophet himself, who laboured in Jerusalem from 740 until sometime after 701 B.C.; (ii) Isaiah 40-55 (generally referred to as Deutero-Isaiah (second -Isaiah)), containing the oracles of another prophet in the tradition of Isaiah, who announced God's word to the exiles in Babylon sometime between 550 and 539 B.C.; and (iii) Isaiah 56-66, Trito-Isaiah (third Isaiah), reflecting the same tradition at a later stage in Jerusalem after the Exile but before the arrival of Ezra and Nehemiah, perhaps around 500 B.C.

Isaiah is often considered the greatest of the Old Testament prophets because of the sheer range and vision of his prophecy. As I wrote in my post on the Eucharist, words have great meaning and power for the Hebrews. Thus their names are more than mere labels; they tell the identity, the significance, the sign-value of the person who bears them (hence the significance of the divine name of God for example). The name Isaiah means "God is salvation" and what is most extraordinary perhaps about this book is that it contains prophecies of Jesus, so numerous, so beautiful and so much more famous than any other prophet, that it has been referred to as the "Gospel of Isaiah".

Isaiah has also been called "the Shakespeare of the prophets", for his poetic turn of phrase rivalled only by Job and Psalms for poetic grandeur. At least ten of Isaiah's passages have become unforgettable to all English-speaking peoples, immortalised in Handel's world famous oratorio, The Messiah: 11:1-5; 7:14; 40:9; 60:2-3; 9:2; 9:6; 35:6-6; 40:11; 53:3-6; 53:8.

This prophet and his followers lived long before Christ, yet the detailed prophecies of the life of Christ we find in Isaiah are far more numerous and far more specific than anything else in the Bible. At least seventeen of them were fulfilled in truly remarkable detail.

Take the time to look up the following seventeen passages. These are only part of the more than three hundred different prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled by Christ. Even though the New Testament writers (especially Matthew) deliberately used the style and language of Old Testament prophecies to describe events in the life of Christ—as a modern preacher might use the King James English to describe current events—the statistical odds that one man could fulfil all of these prophecies so completely is not much better than the odds that a monkey could type out Isaiah by randomly throwing marbles at a computer keyboard. Compare:-

1). Isaiah 7:14 with Matthew 1:22-23;
2). Isaiah 9:1-2 with Matthew 4:12-16;
3). Isaiah 9:6 with Luke 2:11 (see also Ephesians 2:14-18);
4). Isaiah 11:1 with Luke 3:23, 32 and Acts 13:22-23;
5). Isaiah 11:2 with Luke 3:22;
6). Isaiah 28:16 with 1 Peter 2:4-6;
7). Isaiah 40:3-5 with Matthew 3:1-3;
8). Isaiah 42:1-4 with Matthew 12:15-21;
9). Isaiah 42:6 with Luke 2:29-32;
10). Isaiah 50:6 with Matthew 26:26, 30, 67;
11). Isaiah 52:14 with Philippians 2:7-11;
12). Isaiah 53:3 with Luke 23:18 and John 1:11; 7:5;
13). Isaiah 53:4 with romans 5:6, 8;
14). Isaiah 53:7 with Matthew 27:12-14, John 1:29 and 1 Peter 1:18-19;
15). Isaiah 53:9 with Matthew 27:57-60;
16). Isaiah 53:12 with Mark 15:28; and
17). Isaiah 61:1-2 with Luke 4:17-21.

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

Acts is the second book in a two-volume work comprising of the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles. Acts begins with the words “In my earlier work Theophilus, I dealt with everything Jesus had done and taught from the beginning, until the day he gave his instructions to the apostles he had chosen through the Holy Spirit, and was taken up to heaven” (Acts 1:1) which implies that it is a continuation of the Gospel. Brown notes in An Introduction to the New Testament that the unity of the two volumes is “maintained by the overwhelming majority of scholars, based on the continuity of style, thought and plan.” (p.225). 

The title in Greek is Acts of Apostles and it falls into a genre of Hellenistic writing called Praxeis, that is “deeds”, which often recounted histories of great men like Hannibal or Alexander. It is broadly agreed that both works come from the same author, although (like the Gospels) Acts is anonymous. 

As far as external evidence for the author, no one ascribes any other author than the beloved physician and companion of Paul called Luke (Col. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philemon 24). Internal evidence is not particularly clear on the matter either. It has been suggested that medical language used in the text confirms that it was written by a physician, but the author uses some words that are found in Greek doctor’s books and has this in common with other, non-medical books. There are also several passages which contain the narrative written in the first person plural (commonly referred to as the “we” passages, These are: 16:10—(14)—17; 20:5-8, 13-15; 21:1-8, 11, 12, 14-18; 27:1-8, 15, 16, 18, 20, 27, 29, 37; 28:1,2,3,7,10-16.). The evidence of ancient literary practice in general would lead to a conclusion that the author was thus an eyewitness to the events he is writing about. However, Barrett suggests that it is unlikely that Luke wrote the entire work himself, as there are various discrepancies, most notably Luke’s account of the Council in Acts 15:
Would one who was on intimate terms with Paul have believed that he approved of the Decree promulgated in 15:29 and delivered it to the Gentile churches for them to observe (16:4)? In his extant epistles Paul never mentions the Decree and gives advice which seems to contradict it. —Barret, C. K., Acts a Shorter Commentary (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002), p. xxiv.
This makes it difficult to ascribe the whole work to a single author who was on close terms with Paul. An alternative hypothesis could be that such a person—who could well have been the physician Luke—provided the material turned into Acts by the author. 

There are other possibilities however; Richard Bauckham, in his work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, looks at the narrative of the Scriptures and asks what relevance some elements of detail have in achieving any purported theological goals. Extrapolating this theory and applying it to Acts, it seems particularly pertinent when one considers the physicians language and details such as we see in Acts 21. Even Barrett comments on the extraordinary level of detail used by the author here, who notes a departure from the leeward side of the island and a straight course to Cos which `’…implies a north-east wind”. (Barrett, q.v. p.323)

Objectively, it would not seem unreasonable to ask what the point of including such details are if the point of Acts is as contrived and manufactured as some suggest? It seems much more reasonable to assert that these details are the observations of one who was present and experiencing these events first hand. We can also glean from the narrative’s abrupt end, some sense of completion—the story brought up to date. Luke was writing at the time to which the verses refer; he wrote no more, because nothing more had happened.

This evidence takes on further weight when considered in the context of certain historical omissions. The fact that Luke does not mention the Great Fire of Rome and the savage persecution of Christians that followed in 64 A.D. There is no mention of Peter & Paul’s martyrdom in the mid 60’s and no reference to the military conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. The fact that Luke is silent on these matters speaks volumes, especially considering the stress in Luke’s work of the relationship between Christianity and Imperial Rome.

The text itself comes to us from a large number of Greek MSS of various ages, written at different times in Christian history; from various ancient versions; as well as from quotations made by ancient writers. Brown dates the work around 85 A.D., give or take five to ten years. According to Barrett, external evidence would dictate a date not much earlier than 150 A.D. given that Acts is the second volume of a work that included details taken from Mark’s Gospel, commonly dated at around 70 A.D.

Barrett does concede however, internal evidence yields a much earlier date. Whatever the answers to these questions, Acts is written in a bright and interesting style, in the manner of a popular historian, descriptively and with a well-formed narrative. The work denotes education and the author commands a thorough knowledge of Greek and utilises various styles; a business-like style, an ‘OT’ style, and a finer style used for special occasions and important characters.

Investigating the Purpose of Acts

For Raymond Brown, Lucan writing is unique in that more than any other book of the New Testament, the story is intrinsic to the theology. As we have already noted, the author of Luke-Acts was a skilled writer and has been considered a theologian, but also a consummate literary artist with a mind that is tuned to the aesthetic. His intentions are declared unambiguously in Luke 1:1-4: 
In as much as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theoph’ilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed. (Luke 1:1-4) 
Acts contains a similar, if shorter dedication (Acts 1:1-5) that links his efforts in the first volume with those in this volume. In other words, he has gone to the same painstaking lengths to separate fact from fiction in preserving the historical memory of the early Christians. This is a historical work, prefaced in the manner of contemporary historical works. Luke offers an evangelistic presentation of Jesus’ life and mission (in the Gospel of Luke), and here in Acts, this work continues. Luke tells us how Jesus the LORD is still with us; His Holy Spirit has communicated His commandment to the Apostles “whom He had chosen” (Acts 1:2). This is important. Acts is the story of the expansion of the Church under the impulse of the Holy Spirit and has been described as the Gospel of the Spirit. Luke expresses this in 1:8, which sums up the plan of the book: the story of the choice of the disciples by the divine authority of the Holy Spirit, and their inspiration and animation to spread the Gospel message to the ends of the earth.

There has been some speculation that Luke wrote from secular motivation. His evident skill perhaps belies his enjoyment in telling a good story and perhaps Luke wrote for pleasure, with some measure of fraternity with his Christian contemporaries. This theory blatantly ignores a plethora of theological considerations, not least the exhortative and inspirational speeches of the Apostles, which demonstrate a deep understanding of the Old Testament, linking them to Luke 24 and the account of Jesus explaining Scripture to His Apostles on the road to Emmaus. Further, the book repeatedly asserts that the crucified Jesus has been raised by God from the dead; a statement of fact that cannot be accepted without immense spiritual ramifications. Considering the consummate skill of the author in imitating a wide range of postclassical literary conventions, there has been a plethora of theories which generalise recurrent partial comparisons to define the genre of Acts as a whole. The historical-critical method of biblical exegesis provides us with an essential starting point when considering these theories. The interplay of theology and history was unfolded in the Vatican II document Dei Verbum, and then further by two documents of the Pontifical Biblical Commission: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Vatican City, 1993) and The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (Vatican City, 2001). The methodology which matured in the course of debates among exegetes in the production of these documents has led to key understandings regarding the essentially historical nature of Sacred Scripture; “For it is the very essence of biblical faith to be about real events.” ( Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), p. xv.).

This is an important historical assertion made by Pope Benedict XVI because it addresses, and dismisses the Bultmanian dichotomy that has haunted exegesis over recent decades; that idea of the historical fact as “an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical faith.” (Ibid). Acts then, as asserted by Dillon in the NJBC, constitutes a history. Luke and Acts together constitute a historical and literary unity.

History, Apologia, Theology?

As we have seen, scholars attempting to fit Luke-Acts into specific modern literary genres find themselves in some difficulties. Certainly, from a modern perspective, Acts’ lack of historical reliability has been questioned. It is asserted that Luke’s historical accuracy is comprised by his theological agenda, which led him to shape and even create material. However, is the expectation that the author of Acts should have accurately remembered every word, every deed, as if he had recorded it all on video a realistic one? When one compares Luke-Acts to contemporary works, one can see how it is demonstrably within the limits of what was considered reliable by comparative standards; in short, the author of Luke-Acts is every bit as trustworthy as other historians of his time.

J. B. Chance makes a compelling argument for this by comparing the author of Luke-Acts to Lucian’s How to Write History. (cf. Chance, J.B., Acts (Georgia: Smyth & Helwyn Publishing, 2007), p. 16.). Here Chance demonstrates how the evangelist compares favourably with other authors of the Hellenistic tradition as exemplified by Herodotus and Thucydides. Luke's well-written prose also adds an air of seriousness of intent to his writing and lends a scholarly polish, which adds to its air of authenticity. In studying such authors, it is well known and accepted that the speeches recorded were not verbatim representations of what was said, but shaped by the author, retaining as closely as possible the overall message of the speech. The evangelist’s writing, therefore, would seem to be typical of ancient Hellenistic historiography which used the genre of general history, adapting it as appropriate in order that it might provide a suitable literary vehicle for depicting the origins and development of Christianity. It seems obvious then, that Luke wrote in history, in order that Theophilus might “know the truth” (Luke 1:4). Still, the construction of his work fails to fit into the merely historical, if it was an attempt at a history, it would be a poor one that would contradict the author’s evident acumen. 

Perhaps, if the focus of Acts is not history, it has been suggested that it is a Christian apologia which was aimed at vindicating Paul’s memory against attacks by Jewish detractors. Alternatively he could have been attempting to soften the stance of Roman officialdom to Christianity, or even evangelise the Roman intelligentsia. The evidence for Acts as an apologia is substantiated by tracing a vein of political and religious arguing through the whole text. These strands of polemic are seen by Bruce as being prototypical of second century apologia.

Defenses against Judaism are conveyed in the reports of Paul’s stance. His belief in Christ does not nullify his loyal and devout Judaism but rather accentuates the deepest hopeful aspirations of all Israel (Acts 23:6; 24:15; 26:7 f; 28:20). In Paul’s speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-31) we find an affirmation of Christian truth over Pagan ignorance. The third apologetic strand can be witnessed in the proclamations of Christian innocence voiced by Roman officials throughout his work. Jesus’ triple acquittal by Pilate (Luke 23:4, 14, 22), episodes at Corinth, Thessalonica, Ephesus and Philippi, where Roman authorities attest to Christianity’s innocence of any offense against Roman law, also Paul’s acquittal by Felix, Festus and Agrippa (Acts 24:22-23; 25:25; 26:30-32). All these things are self evident in the text, but considering Brown’s comment regarding readership (q.v.) and adding to Bruce’s opinion that of Maddox who asserts that, rather than an apologia, Acts is “a book dedicated to Christian self-understanding” (NJBC 44:5) and the opinion of Johnson that Acts is in fact a theodicy, we can begin to see that Luke’s purpose is broader than any one definition and rather sets out to “defend God’s activity in the world”. (Johnson, L. T., The Acts of the Apostles (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1992), p. 8). For Johnson, the historical verisimilitude in Acts is not as impressive as the very way it is utilised by the author in order to shape his theological vision. The text demonstrates the way in which God’s plan of salvation was actualised in the person of Jesus Christ. This had become necessary because of the diaspora of Christian beliefs away from just Jews and toward the Gentiles. The question Luke addresses is how Gentiles can legitimately claim the promises made by God to Israel as their own inheritance. How could Gentiles accept this story of Judaism which flowed from Jewish belief, and yet was rejected by many Jews?

This led to the formulation of an essential question, can God be trusted to keep His promises? Luke then sets out to demonstrate God’s fidelity, poignantly alluding to Israel’s rejection of God’s offer of salvation through parables like that of the good father in Luke 15:28-31. In Acts, he uses the principle argument of the intersection which the Incarnation constitutes to demonstrate how salvation history continues through this event and the birth of the Church in order to vindicate the expansion of Christianity to the Gentiles as the legitimate fulfillment of the mission of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Luke-Acts, demonstrates that the life, and especially the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His sending of the Holy Spirit impacted so powerfully on the world that it brought forth a powerful response; 
...the Spirit-guided expression of the early Christian community’s experience of the in- breaking of absolute love into the world in the event of Jesus Christ (Lk 24: 13-35; Jn 20:31). —Norris, T. J., A Fractured Relationship (Dublin: Veritas, 2007), p. 136.
It is this continuity of salvation history which is understood with increasing consensus as the principle argument of Luke-Acts. 

This week: we have Peter delivering a sermon which early tradition describes as summary of his teaching. It begins with the Baptism of John and ends with Jesus' Baptism, where God annointed Him to, designating Him the Messiah (Lk 3:22; 4:18; CCC 438).

The Gospel According to St. Luke: Luke is not only a theologian; he is also a “consummate literary artist with a mind that is tuned to the aesthetic”[1]. Luke begins his Gospel with a clearly stated aim: “to draw up an account of the events that have happened”[2]. Luke’s Gospel is the longest of the four gospels, this despite the fact that it only represents half the Lucan writings; Luke’s Gospel was originally joined to Acts as part of a two-volume work [3]. This is evident in the Gospel itself, which frequently looks forward to Acts and Paul’s mission.

Brown indicates that the Gospel was written for churches in Greece and Syria, areas affected by Paul’s mission either directly, or indirectly [4]. Lucan thought and proclivities can be detected in the extent to which the author changes the Marcan material, which makes up about thirty-five percent of Luke. Luke certainly improves Mark’s Greek, bettering the grammar, syntax and vocabulary, as evidenced in 4:1,31 and 38. Luke alters the Latinism kēnsos (= census) in 20:22 from Mark 12:14 and substituting the more exact “craftiness- treachery” for “hypocrisy” in Mark 12:15 [5]

Luke alters the Marcan sequence to accomplish his goals as stated in the prologue: to write carefully and in an orderly manner [6], for example he puts Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth at the opening of the Galilean ministry (Luke 4:16-30) rather than after some time had elapsed (Mark 6:1-6) in order to explain why his Galilean ministry was centred at Capernaum.

Christologically, Luke is more reverential about Jesus than Mark and he avoids Marcan passages that might make Jesus seem weak, harsh or emotional (e.g. Mark 10:14 where Jesus is indignant). He also stresses detachment from possessions (Luke 5:11,28), the Twelve are even forbidden to take a staff [7]!

Adrian Hastings, in his book Prophet and Witness in Jerusalem, makes particular capital over Luke’s allusion to the guilt of Jerusalem. Hastings suggests that this is because Jerusalem represented the old, exclusive Israel. Brown also draws attention to this point in An Introduction to the New Testament, where he asks if Pilate’s triple declaration of Jesus’ innocence[8] represents an attempt to convince Greco-Roman readers that the Jews were totally responsible for the crucifixion [9]. For Hastings, Luke demonstrates a strong affinity for the universality of Christianity and its apostolate to the Gentiles [10] and points out to the Jews that they are the ones who have constantly rejected the messengers of God:
“Hence it is not surprising if they now find themselves cut off from the new church and Holy People of God”[11]
Hastings states that this demonstrates that Luke was writing so that Christians might understand that Jerusalem had rejected Our Lord and thus had been rejected and was no longer the centre of God’s church, which had turned to the conversion of the Gentiles [12]. It would seem to me that this idea would have been greatly aided by the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Brown however, notes that Acts 4:25-28 clearly blames Pilate and mitigates that this may have been an attempt to persuade Roman officials to deal fairly with Christians [13]. Brown eventually concludes that the description of Jewish leaders resisting the spread of Christianity springs from a desire to explain why Christian preachers and especially Paul turned to the Gentiles [14].

The fact that the last half of Acts concentrates on Paul’s career raises the likelihood that Luke-Acts was addressed to the churches descended from the Pauline mission [15]. Talbert concludes his study of Luke-Acts with the finding that the Gospel was indeed motivated by the “churchly situation” [16]; The community was troubled by a concern for the true Christian tradition [17]. Luke writes to aid Christians in these communities in their self-understanding, helping them to know that there was nothing subversive in their origins that should cause them to come into conflict with their Roman rulers.

The Lucan Gospel differs in many ways to Matthew making it seem likely that this Gospel was addressed to a different church (q.v.) [18]. The end of Acts attributed to Paul also indicates that the future of the Gospel lies with the Gentiles, which makes the intended audience unlikely to be Jewish Christians [19]. This is corroborated by the way that Luke drops Marcan Aramaic expressions and place-names in his work.

Luke intends to trace the history of God’s plan from the coming of Jesus, to the fulfilment of the mission He gave to His disciples to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth [20]. The earthly ministry of Jesus and all the events before the Ascension are the turning point in human history for Luke.


[1] Talbert, C.H., Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts, (SBLMS, Montana, 1974) p.1.
[2] Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (William Collins and Sons, London, 1971) p.39.
[3] Brown, R., An Introduction to the New Testament, (Doubleday, USA, 1997) p.225.
[4] Ibid, p.226.
[5] Ibid p.264.
[6] Acts 1:3.
[7] Luke 9:3.
[8] Luke 23.
[9] Brown, R., op. Cit., (Doubleday, USA, 1997) p.271-2.
[10] Hastings, A., Prophet and Witness in Jerusalem, (William Clowes & Sons, London, 1958) p.176.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid p.183.
[13] Brown, R., op. Cit.,, (Doubleday, USA, 1997) p.271.
[14] Ibid p.272.
[15] Ibid, p.270.
[16] Talbert, C.H., Ibid, p.141.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Brown, R., Ibid, p.270.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Léon-Dufour, X., The Gospels and the Jesus of History, (William Collins and Sons, London, 1968) p.150. 

If this post on Luke sparked your interest, there's a post on the historicity of the Synoptics here.

This week: John explains that the Messiah will be mightier than he. Luke emphasises that the Holy Spirit came upon Him (4:18) in order to strengthen Him for a later "Baptism" of suffering (12:50). We can see how this resonates with the first reading, where Isaiah speaks of the "Spirit descending oupon the Servant of the Lord who will minister to the nations." Luke also depicts Jesus as a Servant who brings God's saving light to all nations. Note how Luke depicts Jesus praying (vs 21), he often speaks of Jesus praying at significant moments (6:12; 9:18, 28; 11:1; 22:32, 41; 23:46; CCC 2600).

Drawing them all together...
"Why like a dove? For the grace of he washing requires simplicity, so that we may be innocent like doves. The grace of the washing requires peace, as in an earlier image the dove brought to the ark that which alone was inviolable by the flood. He of whom the dove was the image, who now deigned to descend in the form of a dove, taught me that in that branch, in that ark, was the image of peace and of the Church. In the midst of the floods of the world, the Holy Spirit brings its fruitful peace to its Church."—From the Exposition of the Gospel of Luke by St. Ambrose
The Baptism of Our Lord is all about the sacrament of encounter with the Father. It is a theophany; a manifestation of the Trinitarian nature of God. The Baptism, the Epiphany and the Wedding Feast at Cana are all linked in the process of "epiphany", Jesus revealing Himself to the people.

Baptism is the gateway to the Sacraments because it is through this uniting of our lives with Christ’s death, burial and Resurrection we enter into communion with Him. In addition, it can be said that Baptism is the gateway to heaven: “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). Here Jesus expresses the necessity of Baptism using the prophetic words of the Old Testament to declare the Messianic age’s arrival. We see in Is 32:15; Ezek 39:29; Joel 2:28-29 how the Old Testament envisions YHWH pouring out His Spirit from above in the form of water poured on the Israelites to wash their iniquities away and renew their hearts (Is 44:3; Ezek 36:25-26).

Interestingly, we can also see this Scriptural prophecy expressed in the Manual of Discipline, part of the Qumran Scrolls, which explains the need for submission of one’s soul to all God’s ordinances in order to be truly cleansed. A connection between John the Baptist and this group has not been excluded, perhaps allowing us to trace the developing understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures at the dawn of the Messianic age, gain some insight into the depth of fulfillment of Sacred Scripture wrought by Jesus and how this was manifest in the religious thinking of the time. There are marked differences, which, it could be argued, delineate a burgeoning comprehension of the events about to unfold. The Qumran sect did not regard the rite as effective, however John’s Baptism was one of repentance (Mk 1:4), and Jesus was Baptising with the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:16; 19:1 ff.). Jesus also uses the term to speak metaphorically about His future Passion (Mk 10:38; Lk 12:50; CCC 536, 1225) when He was immersed in suffering and death and rose again to a new life (CCC 1227). All the Sacraments apply the Passion of Christ to us like this in some way.

The water used for Baptism has great significance, first prefigured in Gen 1:2 by the first waters of Creation over which God’s Spirit hovered. We see a unity with Mt 3:16-17, when the Holy Spirit descends on God’s ‘beloved Son’ (Mt 3:17, CCC 1218) as a prelude to the new Creation (CCC 1224). The Spirit takes the visible form of a dove (Mt 3:16), the sign of reconciliation between God and humanity, as at the recession of the flood (Gen 8:11; CCC 1219; 1 Pet 3:20). Indeed, the whole flood analogy works well in conjunction with what is taught in the Catechism regarding Baptism which destroys sin and causes spiritual regeneration (CCC1262) just as water destroys in a deluge and yet is the source of new life springing up from arid soil.

St. Thomas Aquinas explains that water is used as a sign in Baptism, because Baptism washes sin away and regenerates a person to new life. We can see these two effects described by St. Peter (Acts 2:38) as he calls for conversion via the Sacrament which takes away sin and confers the Spirit (Acts 22:16; Jn 3:5; Tit 3:5), the Sacrament which brings us Salvation, as insisted on by St. Peter here and elsewhere (Acts 2:40; 1 Pet 3:21). The Council of Trent describes Baptism as the instrumental cause of our justification, i.e. the means used by Christ to cleanse us of guilt, fill us with the grace of divine life, and adopt us as children of God.

When we consider Baptism in the particular context of initiation, we see how Jesus tells the man born-blind to wash in the pool of Siloam after receiving his sight (Jn 9:11), thus demonstrating how Baptism is a washing and an illumination which brings the light of faith to the mind, which had previously been obscured by the darkness of sin.

Initiation, though its exact form has varied greatly over the centuries (CCC 1230), requires certain essential elements, listed in the Catechism as proclamation of the Word, acceptance of the Gospel, (i.e. conversion), profession of faith, Baptism itself, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and admission to Eucharistic communion (CCC 1229). The journey towards Baptism includes an education, therefore, in the Gospel message:
Incorporated in the Church through baptism, the faithful are destined by the baptismal character for the worship of the Christian religion; reborn as sons of God they must confess before men the faith which they have received from God through the Church. (LG 11).
St. Augustine teaches that “the word is brought to the material element, and it becomes a sacrament.” (as cited in CCC 1228). The water of Baptism is the venue where the life-giving seed of the Word of God produces its life-giving effect (CCC 1227, 1 Pet 1:23), opening the door to the new life in Christ.


Baker, K., SJ, Inside the Bible, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998.
Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991.
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, London: Nelson, 1969.
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001.
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005.
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, New York: St. Pauls, 2011.
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 3, No. 2/ December 2012.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, New York, Touchstone, 1995.

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