Feast of the Baptism of our Lord: The Desert Becomes a City

On this final Feast of the Christmas Season Mark begins his Gospel in the desert, where John baptizes and where Jesus will be tested by Satan. The desert is a place at the fringes of social order, neither town nor country. But when John comes preaching repentance the normal is turned inside out: Mark tells us that all the people of Judea and Jerusalem were going out to him confessing their sins. So the far away deserted place becomes a busy center of life, full of the bustle and noise of human beings.

The desire to see a man named John, who is expressing something true, changes the usual order of things: empty places suddenly become full, and the cities and towns become empty.  Those who come are ready to accept a new life, are open to the gift of repentance and the conversion it requires. In this crowd, pushing and surging forward as the John draws sinners into the water, in this mass of people who hunger for forgiveness and healing we find the Person of Jesus, the sinless one, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

This is where we first encounter Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. Not as a child wrapped in swaddling clothes or as a refugee fleeing the wrath of Herod, but as a man in a mass of people. Jesus lines up with all the sinners on the bank of the Jordan River, waiting His turn to wade into the cooling waters and stand before John.

So the ministry of Jesus begins with the inversion of the social order: the desert becomes a city. It also begins with the complete transformation of the order between God and His people: the holiness of God that instills awe and fear is to be found among the crowds of sinful men and women. The holy of holies, the center of the Temple where there is darkness and silence, and could only be entered once a year by the high priest was now replaced by our brother Jesus who brings the holiness of God out into the crowds of ordinary people.

It is at this moment, when Jesus most identifies Himself with sinful humanity, that the heavens are torn open, and the Spirit descends in the form of a dove. The Spirit will fill Jesus throughout His ministry, as He comes to bring health to those who are sick, as He touches the lepers bringing them back into the community, and as He eats with prostitutes and tax collectors.

That which makes Jesus seem so different from us, His being without sin, is really that which makes Him identify with us so deeply as to stand in the midst of us. Sin can never bring us true solidarity. Sin always fragments the human race; sin is what makes us stand apart from each other in loneliness and suspicion. To have no sin means having a tremendous ability to love others including sinners, to want to be with those in most need so as to bring them freedom and peace, to share His life with them and even to die for them.  Parents with especially difficult children will often spend far more time and effort in helping them, because of their love, than they do with their other children who are doing better in life, even though they love then as well.

This same Holy Spirit who descended upon Jesus at His baptism will burst like flames upon the apostles and members of the early Church on the day of Pentecost, sending them from the upper room out into the bustle of the crowded street, to turn the desert of the world into the city of God.

In His baptism we see Jesus identify with us completely and totally.  Today’s feast is our hope. Jesus the Savior stands among us. He is not afraid to be called the Son of Man, referring to His perfect humanity. As Saint Paul says, For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. ‘

Fr. Tom