The National Catholic Review
Baptism of the Lord (A), Jan. 9, 2011
“I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant to the people” (Is 42:6)

A frequently used technique in action films is a scene in which a person is in danger, slipping off a cliff or a building or some other perilous perch. Another person grasps them by the hand and desperately tries to pull him or her to safety. This is one of the images Isaiah gives us: God grasps the chosen servant by the hand and hangs on for dear life.

Set in the context of the return of the exiles from Babylon, the divine promise is to pull Israel back out of confinement and darkness into light and justice through the agency of a chosen servant. Scholars have long debated the identity of this servant, who features in three more oracles in the Book of Isaiah: 49:1-7, 50:4-10 and 52:13– 53:12. Some think the servant is to be understood as Israel collectively, others the prophet himself or another person who lived during the time of the prophet. Christians see Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophecy.

The purpose for which God calls the servant is for the “victory of justice.” The servant is to bring forth justice to the nations and justice on the earth. A mission centered on “justice” often conjures up images of fiery denunciations of evil and demands for repentance. Instead, Isaiah speaks of the gentle manner of the chosen one: “not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street, a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench” (vv. 3-4). Where there is a spark of righteousness that is in danger of being extinguished, whether by weariness or oppression or sinfulness, the servant will tenderly fan it back into full flame.

Matthew describes Jesus’ baptism in similar terms. Like the Servant in Isaiah, Jesus experiences the Spirit of God gently settling upon him. The image of a dove evokes peacefulness and possibilities for a new beginning. Just as in Genesis 8, where a dove brings Noah the signs of hope for new life, so Jesus’ mission opens a new hope-filled chapter in the history of God’s saving action. Jesus experiences a profound opening to God’s love and pleasure in him, which enables him to lead others to know God’s delight and love in them. This rapturous moment of joy is like having the heavens ripped open (Mt 3:16; Is 63:19) as the divine love pierces through any barriers to the human heart. The powerful arm of the Holy One reaches out to grasp all of humanity by the hand, both to save from danger and to walk hand in hand like lovers forever.

Just as the mission of the servant is centered on justice, so Jesus is intent on fulfilling all righteousness (the word dikaiosyne in Greek can be translated as “justice” or “righteousness” and signifies right relation in every aspect). Matthew shows what God’s righteousness looks like in the persons of Joseph (1:19), John the Baptist (21:32) and Jesus. Jesus teaches his disciples to thirst for righteousness (5:6) and to let their justice surpass that of other religious leaders (5:20), emulating that of God, whose grace is extended to both the just and the unjust (5:45). At times when Jesus encounters those who refuse the divine hand extended to them, his gentle ways turn confrontational and urgent (e.g., Mt 23). But for those who are earnestly seeking the Holy One, as was Jesus when he came to John in the Jordan, God’s firm and steady hand is readily grasped with saving power and an eternal pledge of love.

Barbara E. Reid, O.P., of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, Mich., is a professor of New Testament studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Ill., where she is vice president and academic dean.

Readings: Is 42:1-7; Ps 29:1-10; Acts 10:34-38; Mt 3:13-17

• How have you experienced God grasping you by the hand? Talk with God about that.

• When have you helped another to know how beloved they are?

• How are you and your faith community working to establish justice on the earth?

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