This Sunday is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
In the three synoptic Gospels, the story is remarkably the same: Jesus appears where John is baptizing, receives baptism, and upon that moment a dove descends from the sky and a voice is heard saying “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew’s makes it more a proclamation than an acknowledgement: “This is my beloved son”).
The account in John’s Gospel is a bit different. It is recorded as John the Baptist’s testimony about the events—more autobiographical than narrative. And interestingly, John the Baptist sounds as though the familial relationship between John and Jesus that is established in Luke’s Gospel, did not exist. John knows that he himself is not the Messiah; he has been told to watch for the Messiah and that he will know him when he sees him.
A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me. I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel…I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit’ (John 1:30-33).
Twice John says that he did not know Jesus. It feels odd, but perhaps is clarified in the purpose for Jesus’ baptism in the first place: “He is submitting himself entirely to his Father’s will: out of love he consents to this baptism of death for the remission of our sins” (CCC 536). Jesus is fully God, yes, but also fully man, with free will—he cannot be compelled to sacrifice himself. He must choose it. In the moment that he chooses it—his baptism—he becomes “the manifestation (Epiphany) of Jesus as Messiah of Israel and Son of God” (CCC 535).
So maybe John did not know his cousin Jesus as Messiah until that very moment.
Which brings me to my point. Jesus is baptized by John before his ministry begins. Before he calls an Apostle. Before he changes water to wine at Cana. Before he preaches a word, heals a blind man, meets a Pharisee. At the moment of his baptism, he is unknown, even by his own cousin.
But not by God.
By God he is known and loved. He doesn’t have to earn it. Of all the humans who have lived, Jesus may be the one who most deserves this love. But God shows us that even he, the Son of God, can’t earn it. It just is.
And so it is the same for us.
I believe that this love is available to every single one of us, and conversion—which is really saying that we believe in, accept and return this love—is timeless. There are an awful lot of non-Christians out there who walk in the world like they know God loves them and has asked them to be his hands of love. Who am I to say that because they do not wear a cross that they are not about God’s work?
But for those of us baptized in the water in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit—through Jesus’s baptism, death and resurrection, we have been gifted the grace of the Spirit, which enables us to believe in God, hope in him and love him; gives us the power to live and act under the prompting of the Holy Spirit; and allows us to grow in goodness (CCC 1266).
We have been gifted the power of love.
Imagine, imagine what we could do if we truly believed in our bones that God loved us like that? And if we truly believed that love was our superpower, our inheritance, and our legacy?