This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 3:15–16, 21–22:
The people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all, saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Over the past several years, I have had the great fortune to travel to Rome multiple times — twice on business, twice as a pilgrim of sorts. Rome is a beautiful city — modern, ancient, and all points in between. At one time it was the center of the Western world and it’s still one of the essential great cities of the West. Its art, architecture, culture, and people make Rome an essential travel destination for those so inclined.
One of its jewels is St. Peter’s Basilica, a masterpiece in every form and sense. It holds so much beauty and art that any one piece can be easily missed. One panel in particular might escape notice, as it is ensconced in the wall behind the altar. It depicts the moment in today’s Gospel when the Holy Spirit comes in the form of a dove during Jesus’ baptism. I took this photo during my first visit in 2011:
The Dove of the Holy Spirit was made of yellow alabaster by Bernini, who did most of the work of the altar itself. It’s not easy to capture in a photograph — I’ve tried many times — in part because of the backlighting, and in part because it’s so integral to the entire environment.
That is the lesson from today’s Gospel as well. Jesus established baptism as a sacrament in this episode for all time and the Lord demonstrated its purpose. Jesus Himself would not have required baptism — John the Baptist knew full well who He was, for instance — but His submission to it comes as part of Jesus’ mission to lift all humanity by showing what is possible. We can return to the love of God through commitment to His Word, asking for His help in turning back on our proclivity toward sin. Baptism and the acceptance of the Holy Spirit is integral to that commitment, so much so that it can’t be singled out nor glossed over.
And why is that? As we see in this passage, the Holy Spirit is the Love of God. The love between Father and Son is so powerful that it becomes its own person within the Trinity, represented by the dove that flies symbolically between the two. It descends and wraps itself around Jesus while the Lord speaks about His love.
This is our gift at baptism, too. The salvation of Christ is that we will all be children of the Lord through Jesus. We will all hear, “You are my beloved child,” even though we may stumble and falter through life in ways that would not please Him. That is the grace given freely by God to see us through that journey, one that starts with baptism and the Holy Spirit helping to guide us through.
As Paul writes to Titus in our second reading, baptism and the embrace of the Holy Spirit allows us a new birth as children of God:
When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
The gift of the Holy Spirit connects us to the love between the Father and Son. We become a part of that love, which makes us His children by adoption and by the same token makes us equal siblings in Christ. That is the rebirth of which Paul writes — the gift of baptism. As long as we can step back, see the big picture, and realize just how integral that gift is to our faith and how we should see each other.
Note: I apologize for last week’s absence, due to personal issues.
The front-page image is a detail from “The Baptism of Christ” by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1475. On display at the Uffizi Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.