Readings for the Baptism of the Lord:
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 or 55:1-11
Psalm 29:1-4, 3, 9-10 or Is 12:2-6
Acts 10:34-38 or 1 John 5:1-9
A new year is a time of new beginnings. As we leave behind the past year, our longing for renewal echoes in the psalmist’s prayer that the Lord will bless His people with peace. And as always, our human desire for renewal is met by God’s overflowing generosity, as Isaiah reminds the people of Israel.
As we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord today, we call to mind our baptism when God made us a new creation in his son Jesus.
In “The Calling of St. Matthew,” Caravaggio, the master Baroque painter, evokes the powerful action of God’s grace that makes all things new. When Jesus calls Matthew to be His disciple, He makes him a new creation, just as each one of us was recreated at our baptism.
Caravaggio depicts Matthew seated among a group of men at a small table. Jesus and Peter enter the room on the right side of the scene. The men are startled by the presence of Jesus whose right hand points in a commanding, yet loving, gesture of invitation.
The bearded figure, believed to be the tax collector, points to himself as if to say, “Me?” Caravaggio captures something of the spiritual drama unfolding across areas of bright light and deep shadow. Known as chiaroscuro, the sharp contrast of light and darkness illuminates the scene and evokes the interior spiritual re-creation of Matthew, in this profound moment of encounter with Jesus.
Art commentators note that Caravaggio’s viewers would have seen a similarity between the gesture of Jesus pointing to Matthew and the iconic gesture of God awakening Adam to life in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes.
God, creator of all that exists, gives life to Adam and new life to Matthew the tax collector. And this new life of grace has been given to you and me. It begins at our baptism and continues through every stage of life as we draw close to God in friendship.
The beam of warm light radiating from Jesus brightens the darkened space of the cold room. Caravaggio’s artistic use of light evokes what happens when God creates us anew in Jesus at our baptism. When we hear Jesus’s call to friendship and respond in faith the darkness of the human condition is overcome in the light of God’s love and mercy.
At Jesus’s baptism the Holy Trinity is revealed when the voice of the Father points to his beloved son Jesus and the dove of the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus. The presence of the Holy Spirit sanctifies the waters of the Jordan and all baptismal waters. Now the public journey of Jesus’s mission to re-create the world for friendship with God begins.
At our baptism Jesus called and strengthened us to be his disciples. We continue to receive the baptismal gift of new life in Jesus Christ in dramatic moments of conversion and in ordinary events of our day. In gratitude for this new life of grace, received in baptism, we pray, “speak to me, Lord.”
Reflection Question: How does God’s grace received at baptism renew my life today?
Sullivan is a professor at The Catholic University of America.