by Fr Jason Smith
The Baptism of the Lord was accompanied by one of the most stunning and remarkable events found in Sacred Scripture: The rending open of the heavens, the visible descent of the Spirit like a dove, and the Father’s audible voice.
The importance of this remarkable moment can not be underestimated. Not only was it pivotal for Jesus himself but also for the early Church, as it is found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels and was frequently commented on by the Church Fathers. Today, however, the full meaning and import of this unique moment is unclear or perhaps even lost.
Over the next few weeks I’d like to offer a primer reflecting on this event as found in the Gospel of Luke, 3, 21-22, which offers powerful insights into the life of Christ and our faith in the Triune God.
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.”
PART I: Jesus Prays After His Baptism
The Gospel presents us with two sides of Christ’s life: public and private. In public, Jesus preached, taught, worked miracles, and expelled demons. In private, he prayed.
In Luke 3, 21-22 we have our first encounter with Jesus praying, and the result is splendid. We notice a unique intimacy between him and the Father. His is a different prayer, superior to all before him. The Patriarchs and the Prophets prayed, yet no supplication of theirs could open the heavens. Jesus’ prayer does, and launches a new stage in salvation history.
In Luke’s Gospel we find that Jesus prayed before moments of great importance: The election of the Twelve (6:12); the confession of Peter (9:18); the agony in the garden (22:41); while on the cross (23:46). He also taught others to pray, often using parables. One parable in particular may be considered alongside the passage we are considering.
In the parable of “The friend and night,” (Lk 22:40) is found a promise regarding prayer: “Knock and it will be opened to you.” To the one who prays like this, the heavenly Father will “give whatever he needs,” especially the Holy Spirit who brings all gifts. Is Christ speaking from his own experience? Jesus’ prayer—his knocking—did indeed open heaven, and the Father sent the Holy Spirit upon him, bringing strength for the public mission ahead.
Given the supreme value Jesus gave to his prayer, to find him praying after his baptism stresses the importance of this moment for him. Even the grammatical structure of Luke’s account points this out. Scripture scholars—noting Luke’s addition of Jesus praying—posit, “The heavens opening is attributed not to Jesus’ baptism, but to the power of his prayer.”
It is thus within a context of prayer that the theophany we are about to reflect on takes place. In the Old Testament, a theophany is the self-disclosure, or revealing, of God. It is a phenomenon found throughout the Scripture. God, understood by Israel to be entirely transcendent, still revealed himself in specific places and forms to his chosen people, appearing at springs (Gn 16:7), rivers (Gn 32:23), and most commonly on mountains, such as the revelation at Sinai. Here, at the Jordan, the celestial manifestation of the Spirit and the voice give place to the revelation of the divine filiation of Jesus. It is Christ’s prayer, though, which initiates this new auto-manifestation of God to his chosen people.
Next Saturday we will take a closer look at the stunning and remarkable event brought about by Jesus’ prayer: The opening of the heavens.