Updated: Oct 14, 2021
At the close of the Christmas season, we leave the secret years of Jesus' childhood behind and join the grown-up Jesus in the waters of the Jordan river. The feast of Christmas that celebrates God becoming human like us comes to an end with a particular look at Jesus' baptism.
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In his preaching he proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This part of the Gospel reading we heard back on the 2nd Sunday of Advent. John the Baptist prepares us for an encounter with Jesus. We hear that Jesus is coming, that he is more powerful that John, and that John is not worthy even to undo Jesus' sandals.
Now we hear,
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
This is a very interesting passage from the Bible. I think it gives us a quick peek into Jesus' heart.
We have to ask ourselves why Jesus comes to the river Jordan to be baptized. The Gospel makes it clear that John baptizes people who sin. When we sin, we damage our relationship with God. In our branch of the True Vine, we block the flow of sap--the Holy Spirit is prevented from flowing freely into us and keeping us close to Jesus. We are separated from God. But Jesus is not a sinner. So why does he come to be baptized?
The voice speaks directly to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Why? Why would the voice tell Jesus that he is God's son? Doesn't Jesus already know this? We tend to think that Jesus knows everything all the time, but if we think that, then we are forgetting that he is human like us. We do not know everything all at once. We have to figure out who we are--with God's help--and what we are called to do. If Jesus is human like us, then he has to figure that out, too. With God's help.
If Jesus is God's son, and at the same time he is fully human like us, then--before he rises to eternal life--Jesus is, in a way, separated from God. He is not separated from God by sin, but as a human he is separated from the full, abundant, eternal life with God. He must feel this separation deeply.
Jesus hears of people going to John to be baptized, to heal their relationship with God. He follows. Jesus comes to the waters of the Jordan river, longing for God.
When he steps into the waters of the Jordan river, he fully understands our pain of separation from God. Like us, he desires closeness with God. And God tears apart the heavens for him.
What must that be like for Jesus, to hear God say that he is loved, that God is well pleased with him? It must be soothing for his soul. The Holy Spirit comes down on him, so we know he is given all that he needs:
This is a beautiful moment. We see Jesus in need, feeling separated from God, and receiving the comfort that he craves.
Does this happen for us as well? When we are in need, when we feel separated from God, does God tear apart the heavens for us? Oh yes. You know how I know? There is only one other time in Mark's Gospel when the word for "tearing" apart is used:
Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. (Mark 15:37-38)
Jesus knows the pain of separation from God. He knows both our desire for God and God's infinite desire for us. Jesus gives his whole life--from Baptism to Crucifixion--to heal our separation. He tears apart everything that separates us from God, pouring the Holy Spirit into our lives. There is nothing he would not do to bring us into right-relationship with God.