This Sunday we enter Ordinary Time. With Christmas on a Sunday, Epiphany ended up bumping the Baptism of the Lord, normally the first Sunday of Ordinary Time, to Monday of this past week.
Each year of the three-year cycle, the reading for Baptism of the Lord is from the year’s Gospel – this year, Matthew. But the second Sunday lingers a little longer on the beginning of Jesus’s ministry by giving us a reading from the beginning of John. The third Sunday then goes back to the year’s Gospel, with whatever story immediately follows Jesus’s temptation in the desert. (The desert, of course, is saved for Lent.)
Meanwhile, the Epistle at the beginning of each year is First Corinthians, Paul’s letter on the sacramentality of the Church. This year we’ll get selections from chapters 1-4, next year 5-10, and in year C, 12-15.
Let’s focus on the Gospel reading.
John’s Gospel is like a theological commentary on the others, a deeper insight into what’s going on. On Monday, we read that (the other) John baptized Jesus. Here, John gives Jesus three titles:
“The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
“Who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.”
“On whom the Spirit comes down and remains, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus is the Lamb of God. Now, John came with a baptism of repentance, a symbolic pledge that we want to leave behind our sins. But Jesus really takes away our sins. And he takes away our sins not as a Baptizer but as a Lamb. Jesus will make the perfect sacrifice. Jesus’s baptism sets us free from sin because it plunges us into that perfect sacrifice; it is a union with the Cross of Christ.
The Lamb is a figure not of Baptism but of the Eucharist. The Baptism of Jesus “washes away” our sins because it is our initiation into the Eucharistic Church. Only Jesus can open the sacramental door that gives us access to the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Sin is an absence, a lack of love. He takes away the sin of the world by filling us with his love.
Jesus is greater than John because he existed before John. Jesus is the I AM, the eternal, God from God, light from light. John’s Gospel doesn’t mess around: at the beginning, he professes that Jesus is “in the beginning.”
John – both Johns – always remind us that our union with God is not by our own effort, not by our blood (that is, by birthright), nor by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of man – and not because in Baptism we make a pledge that we’ll try harder. Union with God is a gift from God. Only he who was in the beginning can fulfill this pledge.
When John says Jesus is the Lamb, he speaks about Jesus himself. When he says he was “before me,” he speaks about Jesus’s union with the Father.
And then he tells us about his union with the Holy Spirit: The Spirit descends on him, remains on him, and so he baptizes with the Spirit.
Only the one who has the Spirit can give us the Spirit. And the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives us, the Spirit that fills all seven sacraments, is the Spirit of Jesus himself, and of the Father. We receive the Spirit of the Lamb, the heart of the Crucified. We receive the Spirit of union, the love between Father and Son.
John’s Gospel takes us deep into theology. Jesus is no mere preacher. John the Baptist is there, in fact, largely as a contrast, to remind us of the difference between someone who can only talk and offer symbols, and Jesus who is very God.
Dwelling in this Gospel, then, we see the meaning of the other two readings. In the brief introductory verses of First Corinthians, we read that we are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy” – called to be holy only because we have been made holy by Christ, who pours his life into us in the sacraments.
And in our first reading, from Isaiah, we see on many levels what it means to be God’s servant. Jesus is God’s servant, John is Jesus’s servant, and so too are we. The servant is the one “through whom I show my glory”: it is the glory of God that shines on the face of Christ, and it is only Christ’s glory that can shine on the face of the saints.
We become a light to the nations, who can call back God’s beloved people – “to raise up the tribes of Jacob” – only when first we let Jesus, crucified Lamb of God, in the beginning with the Father, giver of the Holy Spirit, pour his life into us through the sacraments.
What do you need to do to more fully draw your life from Jesus?