King’s College Chapel, University of Aberdeen, 19 January 2014
Isaiah 49:3-6 – Ps 39 – 1 Corinthians 1:1-3 – John 1:29-34
Last Sunday was the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and today is an echo of it. And, as a year begins, this can help us set our compass well.
Jesus began his public life by seeking baptism from John the Baptist. It was from then on that he became a public figure, entered on this phase of his mission. It is one of the most certain episodes of his life. Matthew, Mark and Luke all recount it. Last Sunday, we heard St Matthew’s account. But the 4th Gospel, the Gospel of John, also tells of it, if in a different way. And this we just heard. It’s not a narrative. It’s John the Baptist’s testimony.
So last Sunday and this Sunday, the liturgy holds up Christ’s Baptism before us. As the year begins, the liturgy does this. We’re still on the banks of the Jordan.
Giotto, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, Andrea dell Verocchio, Guido Reni have all left us beautiful paintings of this scene. There’s a whole tradition of iconography too. And John the Baptist today is a portrait-painter, painting Christ in words.
He begins very simply: ‘Look!’ ‘Seeing Jesus coming towards him, John said, ‘Look!’ Jesus comes towards us, emerging from the river, beginning his public life, and John and the liturgy say, ‘Look!’ Before anything else, ‘look!’ Pause, behold, contemplate, gaze. Take up the Scriptures and spend time with them. That would be one good response. And let them be a John the Baptist to lift up the icon of Christ in your mind and heart.
It’s possible to misinterpret Jesus’ baptism by John. There’s a certain clash between appearance and reality. Jesus did not ask for baptism because he needed forgiveness for his own sins, nor because John was his superior. He didn’t receive the Spirit as if he was previously Spirit-less. He didn’t suddenly become the Messiah, the Chosen One of God, at this point.
This is why John says what he says, in four bold assertions:
‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’ A first stroke of the brush. By going into the water, Jesus wasn’t in search of personal forgiveness. He was taking on our sins, taking them on to take them away. Symbolically in water, as later really, in blood, on the Cross.
‘A man is coming after me, John says, who ranks before me because he existed before me.’ It’s another touch. This Christ is a man who in the beginning was the Word, the Word who was with God and was God. This is who we’re looking at.
‘I saw the Spirit coming down on him from heaven like a dove and resting on him,’ says John again. It’s still another brush-stroke. ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and rest, John knew, is the one who is going to baptise with the Holy Spirit.’ Jesus has the Holy Spirit so as to give him, to communicate him: at Pentecost, in the sacraments, whenever he wills. This is who we’re looking at.
‘And I have seen and I am the witness, ‘says John, ‘that he is the Chosen One of God,’ Israel’s Messiah. The final touch to the portrait.
This then is the true Jesus of Nazareth. He’s the eternal Son of God made man, the Servant-Messiah sent now to gather Israel and the nations, the Lamb who will take away the sin of the world on the Cross, and then pour out the Spirit of God.
‘Seeing Jesus coming towards him, John said, ‘Look!’’ This is the Jesus coming towards us – in the Gospels, in the Creed of the Church, in the liturgy. There isn’t another one. And this is the only one worth having. This is the only one who can make a difference, who’s worth living and dying for. The one who isn’t just a historical memory or a nice ideal or a kind of model man.
At Mass the priest holds up the consecrated Host and repeats John’s words: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God; behold him who takes away the sins of the world.’ This is the Christ really and truly present in the sacrament of his Body and Blood, and capable of becoming closer to ourselves than we are.
This is the one who through our baptism has set a spring of living water within us.
Here’s one last thought. There are two ways of living with Christ.
First, we can try to take charge of our own lives, as in a sense we have to. And we can then, in a second moment, ask Christ to be our companion. And Christ, remarkably, goes along with this. He’s happy to be the passenger on the journey of our life.
But there is another way. Not beginning from ourselves, and our own desires and plans, but putting Christ first – looking at him first, not second, and saying to him what he said to the Father, ‘Here I am Lord! I come to do your will.’ We can hand the steering wheel to him. We can ask him to be our beginning, our middle and our end. We can be followers. It is another way. It’s what became possible from Jesus’ Baptism onwards.
And if we look enough, it will start to happen.