"I, the LORD, have...grasped you by the hand..." (Isaiah 42:6)
Last night I was sitting in the confessional and between confessions I started thinking of the verse above from today’s first reading. How many people have walked into that confessional desperate, burdened by sin looking for the merciful hand of God? How many times have I, a sinner, needed His merciful hand as well? Then, in light of today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord, I started thinking of something that my spiritual director once told us in seminary: “when you walk out of confession, you are as clean and as pure as the day of your baptism.” This is something I have told penitents many times when seeking absolution. They need to hear it, and they also need to hear the words of God the Father at the end of today’s gospel: “You are my beloved son (child), with you I am well pleased.” What words of comfort! Initially directed to our Lord, but now directed at us because we have become God’s children through baptism. These words of comfort are of particular importance during this Year of Mercy.
Obviously, Jesus did not need baptism. He was sinless which is why St. Gregory of Nazianzus, a Church Father from the 4th century, says that Jesus comes to be baptized “to bury sinful humanity in the waters.” Just like we are re-created in the confessional, Christ comes to begin a new creation in those waters. Then St. Gregory begins a beautiful description of the exchange between John and Jesus:
The Baptist protests; Jesus insists. Then John says: I ought to be baptized by you. He is the lamp in the presence of the sun, the voice in the presence of the Word, the friend in the presence of the Bridegroom, the greatest of all born of woman in the presence of the firstborn of all creation, the one who leapt in his mother’s womb in the presence of him who was adored in the womb, the forerunner and future forerunner in the presence of him who has already come and is to come again….Jesus rises from the waters; the world rises with him. The heavens like Paradise with its flaming sword, closed by Adam for himself and his descendants, are rent open. …Today let us do honor to Christ’s baptism and celebrate this feast in holiness. Be cleansed entirely and continue to be cleansed. Nothing gives such pleasure to God as the conversion and salvation of men…He wants you to become a living force for all mankind, lights shining in the world. (Oratio 39 in Sancta Lumina, 14-16, 20: PG 36, 350-351, 354, 358-359)
(There is so much wisdom to be drawn from the Church Fathers. As priests, we read excerpts of their teachings daily in the Divine Office such as the one mentioned above from St. Gregory of Nazianzus.)
So Christ today begins the re-creation of humanity. The skies literally open up (notice that in St. Luke’s gospel this happens while Jesus is praying) and we see the Spirit descending and hear clearly the voice of the Father talking to Jesus and to us. These are the words of comfort that we long to hear when we are weighed down by sin as the Father stretches his loving and merciful hand towards us so that we can grasp it and says to us as he said to his Son and our Lord: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”