Tt was dawn that morning in Betabara, where John was baptizing. The sky was clear, with no trace of clouds, and the desert wind was blowing intensely above our heads, agitating the waters from the Jordan River. Although there was no sign of it, that morning proved to be very significant. We would recall this a few years later….
Baptist: I am just one voice, a voice that cries in the wilderness!…. Make way, clear the road for the Lord is coming soon! He is coming, He will not delay! Be converted! Cleanse yourselves, change your hearts of stone to hearts of flesh, new hearts prepared to accept the Messiah of Israel!
On that day, Philip, Nathanael and Jesus decided, finally, to get baptized. The three fell in line, jammed among the crowd of pilgrims, and waded through the muddy waters of the river…
Baptist: Come on, you better decide now. Do you want to be baptized or not?
Philip: Well, I…
Baptist: Do you want to promote the Kingdom of God, so that justice will prevail on earth?
Philip: Of course, but the trouble is….
Baptist: What is the matter with you, Galilean?
Philip: Nothing. It’s just that I am not very fond of the water, you know… It’s been months since….wa..wait! Gulp….!
Baptist: May the God of Israel remove the filth from your body and soul, that you may see with your own eyes the great day of the Lord! And now, let me see; Who are you? What is your name?
Nathanael: My name is Nathanael, from Cana of Galilee.
Baptist: Do you want to be baptized? Do you want to be clean for the coming of the Messiah?
Nathanael: Yes, John, I want to… I also want to prepare the way for Him and… assist the Liberator of Israel….
Baptist: Well, you said yes. This word will hang over your head. When the Messiah comes, follow Him.
Don’t betray Him, as God will betray you for the words that you have just uttered. Are you decided now?
Nathanael: Yes, prophet, I…. I am….
Baptist: Come closer, and be sorry for your sins….
Baptist: Even if your sins are as red as blood, they will be as white as snow; even if they are as dark as charcoal, they will remain as clear as rain water….
The prophet submerged the hairless head of Nathanael in the river, just as he did to our friend Philip and the others. Jesus’ turn came…
Baptist: You, where are you from?
Jesus: I am a Galilean, like the two. I live in Nazareth.
Baptist: In Nazareth? In the neighborhood between Naim and Cana?
Jesus: Exactly. Do you know the place?
Baptist: I have some relatives there…. What did you say your name was?
Baptist: You’re not the son of Joseph and Mary, are you?
Jesus: Exactly. My mother said we were distant cousins.
Baptist: That’s it. It’s indeed a small world! Will you stay here at the Jordan for some time?
Jesus: Yes, a couple of days…
Baptist: Will you be baptized?
Jesus: Yes, John. That’s why I came. You are preaching justice. I also wish to comply with God’s justice.
Baptist: Have you repented of your sins? Truly and with all your heart?
Jesus: Yes, John. I am sorry for everything…. especially for this fear….
Baptist: What fear? Do you fear anyone?
Jesus: I’ll be frank with you, John. I am afraid of God, because he is exacting. At times he wants to harvest where nothing has been sown. He scares me every time he demands what I am not capable of giving him.
Baptist: If you get baptized, will you promise to prepare the way for the Messiah? Think about it first.
God accepts no excuses. If you say yes, then that’s it. If you say no, so be it. Make up your mind.
Baptist: Do you want to be baptized?
Jesus: Yes, John, I want you to baptize me.
Baptist: Very well. You will be one of those who will assist the Liberator of Israel.
Jesus: You always talk of this Liberator, John. But, where is he? Who is he? You told the emissaries from Jerusalem that you are not the Messiah that we are waiting for.
Baptist: Of course I am not the Messiah. He comes after me, a lot stronger than I. He comes after me, but he is before me. This I assure you, Jesus: If he came ahead of me, I would not even dare untie his sandals.
Jesus: But who is he, John? When is he coming?
Baptist: He has come. My heart tells me that he is already in our midst, the Redeemer of Israel, although I have not seen him yet.
Jesus: How do we recognize him when he comes?
Baptist: The Holy Spirit will rest upon him, like a dove, quietly. The Spirit of God never makes noise.
The Messiah will come like a light breeze. He will not cut the almost broken bamboo, nor will he extinguish the flickering wick…. Have you not read what the prophet Isaiah says: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am pleased”? This is the Messiah, the chosen son of God…
Baptist: What is wrong with you, Jesus?… You are trembling.
Jesus: Nothing…. I’m okay.
Baptist: You tremble like the boats in the river when the desert wind blows over them.
Jesus: I’m just feeling cold. That’s all.
Baptist: But it is not cold… and how is that possible when you look flushed?
Jesus: I am nervous, John…, so please baptize me now, while fear has not taken over me, or I might change my mind. Please do baptize me now….
The prophet John, that sun-burnt giant, vigorously raised his arm, held Jesus by the hair and submerged him in the rushing waters of the Jordan River…
Baptist: Lord, give us our freedom; send us the Liberator. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Shortly afterwards, Jesus was taken out of the water….
Jesus: Thank you, John. I feel more relaxed now. I feel… happy, I don’t know why, but I’m happy!… Hey, John, what’s the matter with you? You’re trembling… John, do you hear me?…
But the prophet was not listening. His eyes were fixed on the sky, as if he were looking for something, scrutinizing the clouds, and examining the flight of birds….
Baptist: I hear the voice of the Lord above the waters!
The God of glory is coming like thunder!… His forceful voice is calling…
Jesus: What are you saying, John?
Baptist: Nothing, nothing… For a moment, I thought I heard… The birds in the desert speak a mysterious language and they are like a mirage on the horizon… It’s nothing, don’t worry…
A Man: Hey, let’s get this over with! What’s this big talk just to soak one’s head!
A Woman: Shut up, you dope! You should be ashamed of yourself to be talking that way!…
Another Man: Hey, stop pushing, woman, it’s my turn now!
Jesus: John, I would like to talk to you when there is less confusion here. I need to talk to you.
Baptist: It is I who need to talk to you, Jesus. Now, go back to the shore. The people are getting impatient with this heat….
In a short while, Jesus returned to the shore…
Peter: What happened Jesus? What took you so long?
Jesus: I took the opportunity to ask him some questions…
Philip: I thought you drowned in the river, ha, ha, ha! Look at my hair. It is still dripping. What the heck, this prophet has arms like a pair of pliers; he gets hold of you, pushes you and submerges you in the water, and presto! You are baptized.
Peter: What did you ask him, Jesus?
Jesus: How’s that again, Peter?
Peter: I said, what did you ask the prophet, John?
Jesus: What every one wants to know, like, who the Messiah is, and when the Liberator of Israel is coming.
James: And what did he tell you? Did he say something new?
Jesus: No James, his answer is the same…
Nathanael: There is a certain glow in your eyes…
Peter: Come on, Jesus, tell us. What did the prophet tell you…? You were chatting with him for a long time….
Jesus: He said nothing to me, Peter. Well, he said that the Holy Spirit comes quietly, like a soft breeze; you will feel it in your face, without knowing where it comes from and where it is going.
James: And where does that lead to? Isn’t it John who was talking about the fire, the axe, and the fury of God…? The Messiah cannot be a soft breeze!
He will be a hurricane, and will come as flashes of lightning!
Jesus: I am not sure about that, James. Look at the bamboo. A hurricane would destroy the broken bamboo and extinguish the flickering wicks… All of us here are not like that…. What would become of us if God came like a hurricane? Who among us would survive before him?
Nathanael: Hey, what’s the matter with you, Jesus? You’re talking strange…. What else did the prophet tell you?
Jesus: That the Liberator has already come. That he is in our midst.
Peter: Then let him come out in the open! Did he tell you where he is hiding? Let us look for him, and carry him on our shoulders.
James: Friends, the only thing that is clear to me is that in this stinking river, the Messiah will not find anything. Look at those people by the riverbank… What has the Messiah got to do with them? To form an army of scalawags and prostitutes?
Philip: Now look who’s talking. The son of Zebedee, who is found to have more lice than hair in his beard!
James: Go ahead and laugh, Philip. When the Messiah comes and finds you with your mouth wide open, he will shut it with a big punch! Look at the group we have here – people who stink, prostitutes and foolish men! A very good group to welcome the Messiah!
Jesus: They are like broken bamboo, James. The Messiah is coming to straighten them, not to give them punches.
James: Look, Nazarene, that sounds pretty good, but what is needed here is….
Philip: Enough of these bickerings, guys! I have just been baptized and I will not allow my lips to be tarnished by cursing. Why don’t you just go and eat some round biscuits. It is already getting late, damn – and somehow we have to feed our stomachs.
Peter: Yeah, that’s better. First, let’s have lunch, and continue with the discussion later. Hey, Andrew, John, Nathanael! Come on, guys. Are you coming too, Jesus?
Jesus: Of course, Peter. Let’s go.
The sun was at its peak, enveloping the parched land with its scorching heat. That morning the river, the wind and the desert birds became witnesses of how God made his presence felt in the River Jordan. The Lord sought Jesus, who in turn listened to his voice. Something marvellous happened to us, but then, we were not aware of it.
The baptismal rite made popular by John signified a public acknowledgement that marked the beginning of a way to justice while awaiting the coming of the Messiah. Jesus, who was one of the many, joined the people’s movement by adhering to John’s message. His baptism would be the starting point of his life of service to the people.
Since then, Jesus, as a true human, began to understand what God expected of him, by way of his contact with his people, and his various experiences. He grew in age, according to the biological process that we all undergo. He grew in wisdom: by opening up to the Lord and to others, and he came to realize his mission. He grew in grace: Remaining faithful to God strengthened his commitment to service, to the point of giving up his own life. This whole process is, in a way, highlighted in the gospel narration at the time of Jesus’ baptism during which he, having been aware of the character and message of John, would undergo a decisive inner experience of faith.
Sometimes, during intense moments of our lives, we ask ourselves, in a very special way, what we ought to do, what our vocation and responsibility is. These are moments when we are touched by the pain and injustice around us; and with our strength, we share something in the hope; that things may change. This is the time when we certainly experience the guiding hand of God leading this world toward a future full of hope, making us realize that all men and women in our midst are brothers and sisters. This is the moment when reality “speaks” to us, and we become so enlightened as to understand its meaning. It is not easy to explain or translate these experiences into words. And this was how Jesus felt when he was baptized in the River Jordan.
In order to describe this inner experience and appreciate the significance of this moment in Jesus’ life, the writers of the gospel had to resort to external symbolism. The heavens open: this means that God is near Jesus.
A dove descends: something new is going to happen, and like the Spirit hovering over the waters on the first day of creation, now it is flapping its wings over Jesus, the new human. Then God’s voice is heard, choosing Jesus as his beloved Son… All this notwithstanding, we are not to forget that Jesus’ commitment, all through his life, was marked by simplicity and humility, without grandeur. It is through humility that the Lord wished to reveal Himself.
Baptism among Christians is not intended for salvation; it is rather an initiation similar to what Jesus underwent. The Christian baptism is a rite in which one breaks away from sin, (rejecting Satan and his works) as witnessed by the community, and it adheres to the Good News of Jesus by means of the baptized person’s commitment to put into life the new values taught in the gospel.
The early Christians who lived in Israel were baptized by submerging themselves in the waters of the Jordan river. In other places, the people would take a bath in the river or in the pond. Through the centuries, this custom has vanished and nowadays, only a small amount of water is poured on the head of the new Christian. The Orthodox Christians and other groups still practice baptism by immersion.
(Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22; Jn 1:29-34)