Baptisms today are celebrated in churches, with elaborate christening gowns, decorated candles, perhaps even music to accompany the prescribed prayers and ritual. All of this of course has developed over time as countless believers have entered the Church through baptism into the death and resurrection of the Lord.
The scene was much less ornate when Jesus was baptized. Jesus found John the Baptist in the wilderness surrounding the Jordan River. The Baptist wore a garment made of camel's hair bound with a leather girdle, the same sort of thing the great prophet Elisha wore many centuries earlier. We do not know what Jesus wore, apart from the sandals which John declared he was unworthy to loosen--as Jesus prepared to enter the river for baptism?
With this encounter between Jesus and John, two ages meet. The old age is represented by John who baptizes with water only; the new age comes with Jesus who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire that reveals the divine in a mortal world.
John understood the significance of this moment. His life was dedicated to preparing people for the coming the Lord. To those inclined to mistake him for the Anointed One, John clearly explained that he only prepared them for "one mightier" than himself.
Since at least the age of Isaiah the prophet, some five centuries earlier, people had thought of the heavens as closed off from the earth, as if the sky were a barrier between God and humanity. In one of Isaiah's oracles, the people even plead with God to "rend" the heavens and come down to save them (Is 63:19).
John's assertion that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit is confirmed as the Spirit descends on Jesus. It comes "like a dove," rather than a mighty wind or a blazing fire, to reflect the gentle character of the Lord as he calls the people to repentance and eternal life through his healing miracles and thought-provoking parables. When Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan River the heavens open for him. This is something special in the Bible. It does not happen very often. St. Stephen saw the heavens this way as he was about to surrender his life for giving witness to the Lord. In his Book of Revelation John is privileged to see the court of heaven giving constant praise to God. In both cases the boundary between heaven and earth vanishes to accent God’s connectedness with us. This is most apparent in Jesus. Little wonder that the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends as Jesus receives the baptism of John to begin his public ministry. As we think about the meaning of baptism for us we might ask God to give us the grace to say and do such things that the boundary between heaven and earth seems imperceptible to those around us.
Rev. Timothy P. Schehr