11 January 2022, The Tablet

At his baptism, God is expressing not just approval but delight in his son

THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD 2022 | LUKE 3:15-16, 21-22

At his baptism, God is expressing not just approval but delight in his son

The Baptism of Christ by Christoph Schwarz (1545-1592).
Prado Museum/Prisma Archivo/ Alamy

Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan initially perplexed early Christians. If the Son of God was sinless, why did he undergo baptism “for the forgiveness of sins”? But what at first had appeared contradictory, came with time to be seen as summing up the whole Gospel: Jesus’ baptism was a further manifestation of God’s humility. That Jesus, who was himself utterly without sin, should submit to baptism unequivocally presaged that the long-awaited Messiah would liberate us, not by the sword, but by an act of costly solidarity on the Cross, prefigured by this act of sublime humility in the Jordan.

All this is conveyed in allusions that would have screamed out to this gospel’s first readers, but which for us now require excavation and exegesis. So, for instance, Jesus is baptised in not just any river, but in the river Jordan, the final barrier to be crossed before Israel entered the Promised Land. The fact that he is standing on the shore of the Jordan when he is proclaimed as God’s Son, the Beloved, unmistakeably suggests that he himself is the new, definitive Promised Land: he is the ultimate goal to which we are all journeying.

Again, the dove that hovers over him at his baptism is a reminder, first, of the story of Noah, when a dove announced deliverance from the cataclysm of the flood: in Jesus, we are delivered from a far greater cataclysm, the loss of eternal life. But the hovering dove was also a reminder of the Spirit who hovered over the waters at creation: in Jesus, a new creation is being inaugurated. And his baptism itself, “for the forgiveness of sin” – though not his sin – suggests that, as the people of Israel were brought out of slavery to Pharaoh, so we are brought out of a much worse slavery, slavery to the insanely self-harming and deadening actions we call ‘sins’. And, finally, Jesus’ baptism foreshadows the fact that the sinless Son of God, precisely by becoming fully human, will suffer the 2 consequences of our inhumanity. But it is precisely his willingness to accept suffering because of becoming one of us that will liberate us from the suffering that we bring upon ourselves by our sins. Interestingly, there’s a crucial word used in the account of Jesus’ baptism, at the moment when he emerges from the river Jordan, that’s rarely commented on. The Father is heard to say, “You are my Son, the Beloved”, followed by words variously translated as, “with whom I am well pleased” or “my favour rests on him”. These imply approval, divine approval. But the original Greek also means ‘to delight’.

Translated in this way, God is expressing not just approval but delight in his son. It’s God’s delight, in other words, rather than mere approval, that unequivocally identifies Jesus as his Son. What could be more natural between a father and a son? And since to love is to delight in the one loved, is it not as true to say that God is Delight Itself, as it is to say that he is Love Itself? So, as Jesus’ life began with the praise of angels, the adoration of shepherds, and the homage of the Magi, his public life now begins with the expression of his Father’s delight in his beloved Son. The enigmatic medieval Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), with his usual arresting turn of phrase, describes the delight which is God like this: The Father laughs at the Son, the Son laughs at the Father, and their laughter brings forth pleasure; their pleasure brings forth joy, and their joy brings forth delight. And he goes on to liken God’s delight to a young horse galloping around a field, kicking its rear legs into the air out of sheer exuberance.

Delight, divine and human, is key to Christian existence. It draws us out of ourselves to delight in the goodness of creation and, a fortiori, in the infinite goodness of the Creator. Nor is delight confined to our minds: God, according to Aquinas, has given us our senses – all of them – so that we might delight in his creation. It’s delight in another that draws us out of ourselves into selfless love, taking unconditional delight in the very existence of another person. It’s delight that is the ultimate purpose of the Incarnation, in that, by sharing his life with us, God has made it possible for us to share in the mutual delight that is the life of the Blessed Trinity.

Nietzsche (1844-1900) famously said that Christians don’t look redeemed: by which he meant, presumably, that he saw no evidence of delight. For all his own gloominess, he was onto something. Why is it that we’re so bad at letting what’s on the inside show on the outside, and, in particular, on our faces? Are we afraid of appearing mad? No wonder St Francis of Assisi was openly called mad. And, of course, similar things were said about our Lord himself, mistaking his delight in company and conviviality for gluttony and insobriety. On that note, no less a figure than the formidable St Catherine of Siena (1347-80), another Dominican, openly chose delight in wine as an image for being caught up in the delight and joy of God. She says in a letter to a young, rather morose Dominican friar, Frà Bartolomeo, that if we were really to delight in God as much as he delights in us, we’d seem like someone who’d had too much to drink, forgetful of all our worries and especially of ourselves. She explicitly advises him: “Behave like someone who drinks a lot.”

Similes can, of course, be over-stretched; but they can also be missed altogether. In this case, far better the former than the latter.

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