The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 29:1-4, 9-10
Second Reading: Acts of the Apostles 10:34-38
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 3:13-17
The acclaimed 1967 novel The Chosen by Chaim Potok, situated in the Jewish enclave of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, is a coming of age story centered on the friendship of two teenagers, Reuven Malther and Danny Saunders. Danny’s father is the rabbi and spiritual leader of their Hasidic community, a group that came to the United States from Russia prior to the Revolution. The congregation view Reb Saunders as more than just a rabbi or teacher; they see him as tzadik: a righteous man.
Rabbis like Isaac Saunders, who led his people from oppression in Russia to freedom in America, are revered, but so are people like Aristides de Sousa Mendes who sacrificed his promising career in the Portuguese government in order to secure visas for 30,000 Jews during World War II. For his work he, among a number of others, has been given the title Righteous Among the Nations – otherwise known as “righteous Gentile” – by the Israeli government.
In the tradition of the Jewish people there is really no higher accolade that can be bestowed upon a person than to be called tzadik, and it is within this context that the words of Jesus to John in the Jordan take on their full meaning: “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” What, then, must be allowed, in order to fulfill all righteousness? John must, against what his religious sensibilities are telling him, baptize Jesus.
Those who came to the Jordan to be baptized by John were seeking a symbolic cleansing that mirrored their spiritual conversion. The term that theologians use for this is metanoia, a Greek word that literally means “change of heart.” Jesus needs no such symbolic action, and thus the reluctance of John to acquiesce to His wishes. But since there is nothing in the ministry of Jesus that has no spiritual meaning there must be something else happening here.
Matthew hints at the reason as the story concludes with the Father’s response to the baptism: “This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased.” The submission by Jesus to such a humbling act aligns with the will of the Father, Who is therefore “well pleased.” And so righteousness takes its place firmly within the context of the purpose and ultimate conclusion of the mission of Jesus, His ultimate submission to the will of the Father on Good Friday.
In this baptismal moment the concept of tzadik is raised to a supernatural and divine level such that anyone who dares to take on the name of Christian must be willing to take on the mantle of humility in order to fulfill all righteousness. Fewer things go against the grain of our personal pride more than to be blamed for something that we did not do, or, maybe even worse, to watch others take the accolades for something that we did. The righteousness of Jesus in the Jordan points us to a different vision: there are times when your submission to the will of God will cause you to be misunderstood by the world.
When the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us it was a universe changing event, and one that was a stumbling block to the Chosen People and foolishness to the Gentiles, yet the baptism of that Logos was a sign from God that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity was truly man as well as truly God. In that revelation lies our hope of becoming tzadik ourselves, for it wasn’t just a God Who entered the Jordan’s waters – it was one of us as well.