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A Scripture reflection for The Baptism of the Lord

by Donald Senior, C.P. | January 12, 2019

A Scripture reflection for The Baptism of the Lord

January 13, 2019



First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7

Responsorial: Psalm 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10

Second Reading: Acts 10:34-38

Gospel: Luke 3:15-16, 21-22



A Storm of the Spirit

This Sunday feast of the Baptism of the Lord signals the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of "Ordinary Time." The church's liturgical calendar now begins its long reflection on the mission of Jesus that will be viewed this year through the prism of Luke's Gospel.

In each of the Gospels, the public ministry of Jesus begins with this inaugural scene in which Jesus is plunged into the Jordan River by John the Baptist. The Gospels make a clear distinction between the ritual John performs and the impact of Jesus' own mission. John, the fierce desert prophet, had, in fact, used the fundamental symbolism of immersion or bath to signal Israel's need for a new life of fidelity to God. Performing that ritual on the edge of the Judean desert and in the waters of the Jordan only added to the dramatic symbolism: ancient Israel had crossed at this same place and through this same river into the promised land after their long desert trek from slavery to freedom.

But, as John the Baptist testifies, he baptizes in "water," but the baptism that Jesus will bring is "with the Holy Spirit and fire." John is the herald; Jesus is the event. As the gospel reading today makes clear, Jesus brings into the world the unique and transforming power of God's Spirit. In Luke's version, after Jesus had been baptized and while he was praying, a storm of the Spirit takes place -- heaven opens, and the Spirit descends on Jesus. The divine "voice from heaven" declares, "You are my beloved Son; with you, I am well pleased."

More than any of the other Gospels, Luke emphasizes the dynamic power of the Spirit that drives Jesus and his mission. That Spirit of God had already made its presence felt in Luke's infancy narrative, with the Spirit hovering over Mary at the moment of Jesus' conception, with that same Spirit moving the hearts of the witnesses to Jesus' advent -- Zachary and Elizabeth, the shepherds in their field, and Anna and Simeon in the Temple. That same Spirit would be the animating force of Jesus' own ministry beginning in the synagogue of Nazareth and manifesting its power in Jesus' healings and teaching. 

And emboldened by that same Spirit, after the resurrection the apostles find the courage to proclaim the gospel of God's love to the world. We hear an anticipation of this in the second reading for today, from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter, moved by the Spirit of Jesus, brings the gospel to the Roman centurion Cornelius -- a great turning point in the mission of the early church. As if for the first time, the devout Jew Peter realizes that "God shows no partiality" and embraces "every nation."

The reality of God's dynamic Spirit is a deep-running biblical motif. The first reading today is from the prophet Isaiah who anticipates the anointed one who would liberate Israel as one filled with the Spirit: "Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit." This spirit-filled servant will be "a light for the nations," who will "open the eyes of the blind," bring prisoners out from their confinement, and free "from the dungeon those who live in darkness."

The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruah -- it can mean "breath," or "wind" or "life" itself. The same is true of the Greek word pneuma. We can glimpse in this word itself how the Scriptures view the mission of Jesus. He has come to bring vibrant life to the world -- healing, reconciling, restoring justice, creating peace. It is the beginning of this mission portrayed in the Gospels that the church celebrates today.

And in reflecting on the unique baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, we also learn the meaning of our own baptism. We, too, are God's "beloved." We, too, are given abundant life. And we, too, as with Jesus, are to bring that divine Spirit of healing and justice into our world.


[This is adapted from the weekly column, Perspectives on Scripture that appears in The Chicago Catholic archdiocesan newspaper; used with permission.]


The above image is from the Public Domain.

Author information Donald Senior, C.P.

President Emeritus, Chancellor, Professor of New Testament Studies

Donald Senior, C.P., holds a Licentiate in theology (S.T.L.) from the University of Louvain, Belgium and a Doctorate in New Testament Studies (S.T.D.) from the University of Louvain. He has pursued further graduate studies at Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, Ohio and at Harvard University. Fr. Senior served as President of CTU for 23 years, retiring in July 2013. On April 27, 2015, he was named Chancellor by the CTU Board of Trustees.

A frequent lecturer across the country, Fr. Senior also serves on numerous boards and commissions. He is past President of the Association of Theological Schools of the United States and Canada. In 2001, Pope John Paul II appointed him as a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and was reappointed in 2006 and 2008 by Pope Benedict XVI. He has been active in interreligious dialogue, particularly with the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Fr. Senior is the General Editor of The Bible Today and co-editor of the twenty-two volume international commentary series New Testament Message. He is the General Editor of The Catholic Study Bible (Oxford University Press, 1990). He has authored and edited several books and articles.

Donald Senior is a member of the following professional associations: The Catholic Biblical Association of America; The Society of Biblical Literature; Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas; The Chicago Society of Biblical Research; The Catholic Theological Society of America; The International Association of Missiological Studies; Pax Christi International.

He has served as an official representative to the Southern Baptist/Roman Catholic Scholars Dialogue, sponsored jointly by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention. Fr. Senior just recently ended his term as President of the Association of Theological Schools of the United States and Canada. He is a member of the Board of Directors for Sadlier Publishing Company; the Board of Advisors of the Auburn Center for Theological Education; and the Advisory Committee of the Henry Luce III Fellowship program; and serves on the Executive Committee of the Association of Theological Schools of the United States and Canada. In 1994 he was awarded the Jerome Award for outstanding scholarship by the Catholic Library Association of America. In 1996, the National Catholic Education Association awarded him the Bishop Loras Lane Award for his outstanding contribution to theological education. He is a past President of the Catholic Biblical Association of America (1997-98).

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