The story in Mark of the baptism of Christ is spare and quickly told, as events tend to be in this briefest Gospel. The other books give us precious insight into the character of John, and, through him, the character of Jesus. Mark tells us, in his account of this meeting of prophet and Savior, only what is most essential. His brief telling exalts the tale.
John leapt in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, according to the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of John tells us that the Baptist, seeing Jesus among those who have come to him at the Jordan River, says, “I myself did not know him,” the man, presumably his kinsman, whom he declares to be “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” This moment of astonished recognition, in which Jesus, standing quietly among the crowd of people hoping for relief from their sense of sinfulness, is transformed in John’s eyes by an overwhelming realization that the righteousness and holiness of his kinsman Jesus is altogether of another kind than any he has ever encountered before. By his presence among mortals as one of them, God is already effecting a vastly profounder remission of sins than John, great as he is, can begin to offer.
John has gone to the wilderness to prepare himself to speak harsh truth and to offer comfort to a people prepared by tradition to value their prophets. He wears the garb and lives the life of an ascetic. The Pharisees and Sadducees who come to John are attired, schooled and disciplined as religious men. So far as we can know, Jesus has simply worked as a carpenter. This figure of world-transforming holiness awaits baptism among the sinners, exactly like any ordinary man.
What appears in Matthew to be John’s embarrassment or confusion — he says, quite reasonably, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”— reflects an unimaginable moment. A prophet has comes face to face with the Fulfillment of prophecy. John’s struggle to express the degree of difference he feels between his mission and that of Jesus affirms his prophetic insight and his own high place in the sacred narrative. Jesus desires and accepts his baptism.
According to Mark, the Gospel of Jesus Christ begins with the preaching of John the Baptist and the promise that “After me comes he who is mightier than I . . . I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” This is true, and no more than the foreshadowing of much greater truth. We are told that Jesus comes to John from Galilee. No words pass between them. Jesus does not speak at all. We know that the baptism has occurred because “he came up out of the water.” And in this defining moment, “immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove.” What would be seen when the heavens opened we are not told, but the words do tell us that Jesus’s rising from the river is an event whose beauty enlists the grandeur of Creation in response. Then the Spirit invoked in the fiery language of the Baptist descends on him “like a dove,” gently, silently, elegantly. In this momentous silence, the voice of God is heard: “Thou art my beloved Son: with thee I am well pleased.”