Jesus Anointed by Baptism

by Andrew Marr, OSB

When Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened and Jesus heard a voice from Heaven say: "This is my son, the beloved; my favor rests on him." (Mt. 3:17) This event in the life of Jesus is rightly viewed by most exegetes as a turning point in Jesus' emerging awareness of his vocation. Even if Jesus had some inkling before that time of his calling and true identity, the voice from heaven surely pointed the way for him. Whether or not anybody else heard the voice (and the Gospel narratives are ambiguous on this point) the inclusion of these words in the synoptic Gospels is definitely a Christological proclamation.

This phrase is an obvious allusion to Psalm 2:7, which brings Jesus into the royal line of the House of King David. However, two other illusions pointed out by Robert Hamerton-Kelly in The Gospel and the Sacred suggest that the royal vocation of Jesus is not the same as David's. The first Song of the Servant of Yahweh in Isaiah begins: "Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights." (Is. 42:1) Here, the servant in whom God delights is not a king seated on a throne, but rather is the servant who is despised, rejected and cut off from the land of the living. As if that were not enough, the words from heaven also echo Genesis 22:2, where God asks Abraham to take his only son, the son whom he loves, to Mount Moriah. Surely Jesus realizes that God's pleasure in His son does not result in the beloved son's receiving any jewel-studded thrones.

We can only guess at the motives of those who came to John to be baptized. It is quite likely, however, that this migration into the wilderness reflected widespread dissatisfaction with the religious and political establishment in Jerusalem. If the religious needs of the people were met by worship in the temple, they would not have bothered to make the arduous journey outside the city in search of something better. In his preaching, John pointed to a coming transformation by promising that someone greater than he was about to appear. As so often in the Jewish tradition, however, actions spoke louder than words. The very fact that John located himself in the wilderness suggested that he was proclaiming a new beginning for Israel, a beginning that would re-create God's people as the first journey into the desert after the escape from Egypt had created them. Moreover, John was baptizing the people with water from the very river that Joshua had crossed to bring the people to the promised land. This crossing was itself a repeat of the deliverance at the Red Sea as, for a second time, God parted the waters so that the people could walk across the river bed. The prophet known as Second Isaiah had promised Israel that in bringing the exiles out of Babylon and back to Jerusalem, there was "no need to remember the past," when God led the way through the sea, because God was "doing a new deed." (Is.43:16-17) Mark witnesses to this truth with the very first word of his Gospel: Arche. The word, of course, echoes the opening of Genesis, where God is said to have created Heaven and Earth "in the beginning." Mark wastes not a second, not even the writing of a definite article, in rousing the expectation that God is making a new beginning, a new creation. Including the article in English translation weakens the blunt opening Mark intended. It is more accurate for a translation to read" "Beginning the Good News of Jesus Christ."

When Jesus came to John at the River Jordan, he may not yet have known what the new beginning for Israel was about to be or even that he was the one greater than John the Baptist who was to come after him. However, he could hardly have failed to expect a new beginning initiated by God, even if he could only expect the unexpected. When, after he was baptized, he heard the voice of Heaven echoing the royal Psalm 2, the added associations of Genesis and Isaiah would have been enough to turn the idea of kingship on its head inside of Jesus' head. With these scripture verses on the brain, it might well have occurred to Jesus that he was hearing this royal declaration of favor in the very place to which the scapegoat was driven out of the temple.

The human actions that accompanied the words from Heaven could hardly have failed to make a flip-flop out of kingship. The fact that Jesus had gone out to the wilderness would not have precluded a traditional understanding of royalty. Several kings, including Saul and David, were anointed in the wilderness. However, the kings of Israel and Judah were anointed with oil. Even if the anointing happened in the wilderness on the fly, as it did with King Jehu, the prophet sent by Elisha had a flask of oil handy. (2 Kings 9: 6) John the Baptist, however, had no oil. Surely nobody expected that he did. Jesus came to John to be baptized, just like the multitudes that were coming for the same purpose. Nobody would expect to be proclaimed a king while he was being doused with water. And yet the royal words from Psalm 2 were heard right at the time when John poured the water from the River Jordan over Jesus. Jesus was anointed king, not with oil, but with water! Moreover, Jesus was anointed with water in exactly the same way that everybody else was anointed.

It is an act of divine irony that Jesus should have been baptized at all. No sooner had John prophesied the coming of someone greater than himself, then that person came and submitted to the baptism John was administering to everybody else. According to Matthew, when John suspected or realized who this person really was, he was scandalized. The uneasiness in Matthew's narration suggests that the early church as a whole was scandalized by the event and did not understand it. Matthew has John express the puzzlement of all of us when he has John protest the submission of Jesus to him. Jesus' reply, that we should "let it be for the time being," in order to "fulfill all righteousness" (Mt. 3:15) is not exactly a model of a crystal-clear explanation. I think, however, that we are safe in understanding these words as suggesting that it is only in complete solidarity with all humans that Jesus can "fulfill all righteousness." Jesus cannot fulfill all righteousness if he assumes a position superior to us, but can do so only if he submits to the same ministration as everybody else.

A monarch is, by traditional definition, is a superior human, sometimes even a superior species above the human. Saul was head and shoulders above all other men not only literally, but figuratively. When a king was anointed in Israel and was declared God's son on whom God's favor rests, the words meant that the king was favored above all other people. However, the meaning of this declaration is turned on its head when it is used, not for an event that is ministered to place a superior individual on a pedestal, but for an event that is ministered to "Jerusalem and all Judea." (Mt. 3:5-6) Later, Jesus will remind his listeners that prominent among those who received the same baptism that Jesus received were tax collectors and prostitutes. (Mt. 21:32) Not only that but, Jesus also shared this same baptism with the "brood of vipers" who were fleeing from the wrath to come, although they apparently did not believe the preaching of John. How low can you get?

When one person is given favored status, it causes resentment, but the situation is intelligible to all concerned and everybody knows what to do about it. The one who holds the superior position seeks to strengthen it and hold off all comers. The others, who lack this position, try to take the position for themselves if they can. John the Baptist subverted this scenario to a degree when he said that he would decrease so that the one coming after him could increase. Even here, however, John is still thinking in terms of superior and inferior positions. By submitting to John's baptism, Jesus has abolished the positions altogether. There is no pedestal to gain and no pedestal to lose.

Not only did Jesus receive the same baptism that was administered to "Jerusalem and all Judea," but he received the baptism that is administered to all his followers who ask for it. Far from receiving a royal anointing that, by definition, could not be shared, Jesus received an anointing that, by definition, must be shared, that must be available to all. This means that Jesus' anointing is still available to tax collectors and prostitutes and the "brood of vipers" who engineered his death. That is to say, this anointing is even available to you and me.

The catch is that the royal throne is not so glamorous as it used to be. The only pedestal that remains is the cross. St. Paul is at pains to teach us that when we are baptized, we are baptized into Jesus' death so that through that death, we can be baptized into Jesus' resurrected life. (Rom. 6:4) Baptism makes us favored sons and daughters just like Jesus. That is, baptism favors us with the opportunity to die, again just like Jesus. The Second Epistle to Timothy quotes an ancient church saying that pinpoints this teaching exactly: "If we have died with him, then we shall live with him. If we hold firm, then we shall reign with him." (2 Tim. 2:12) This is the "royal priesthood" which Peter declares is the privilege of us all.

In Mark's narrative scheme, just before Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem, James and John ask to sit on the right and left hand of Jesus in his kingdom. Jesus replies by referring to his own baptism and then asks the two brothers if they can undergo the baptism he is about to undergo. (Mk. 10:35-40) Robert Hamerton-Kelly points out that here, Mark has created a chiasm of two narratives that refer to baptism. The whole itinerant ministry of Jesus is sandwiched by the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan and this narrative about the baptism Jesus' followers are invited to share with their Lord. Jesus reply in the latter narrative, of course, flies in the teeth of the renewed rivalry on the part of those following Jesus. In his baptism, Jesus pulled the rug out from under all our attempts to conceive of our relationships in terms of positions which we must strive for and defend. In his death, he pulls an even deeper layer of the rug from under us, so that we are left only with Jesus' death and the life of his Resurrection.