Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.
John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” —Matthew 3:13-17
In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Pope St. John Paul II reflected briefly on each of the Luminous mysteries. Although it may not seem particularly significant at first glance, in each case where the event recalled by a mystery occurs in two or more Gospels, the pope explicitly referred to this fact by adding to the reference of the chapter and verse the words “and parallels.” For example, his reference to this first Luminous mystery reads, “cf. Matthew 3:17 and parallels” (21). In other words, the holy father drew attention to the fact that there are other baptism-in-the-Jordan narratives in addition to the one in Matthew, each with its own theological perspective.
The pope acknowledged this in a matter-of-fact way, in passing; but in doing so, he reflected the mature Catholic understanding of the Scriptures and the whole modern history of Catholic Scripture scholarship, including its various scientific and historical methods of interpretation. Not only does the pope affirm the modern history of Catholic Scripture scholarship, but by his own example, he reminds all Catholics that there is nothing helpful about a naive, simplistic, or overly literal approach to the Bible. The same is true for the Rosary, which is deeply rooted in the Scriptures through its mysteries and prayers.
One unique characteristic of Matthew’s baptism-in-the-Jordan narrative is that it alone includes the interaction and dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist. Of particular significance for Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience is John’s open acknowledgment of Jesus’ superiority. At the same time, it is significant that Jesus gently rebuffs John’s objection. Jesus had no objection to accepting John’s baptism, for to do so was to “fulfill all righteousness.” In Matthew’s Gospel, this phrase refers to fulfilling prophecy and acting according to the requirements of moral conduct according to God’s will. In other words, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus wants to act in accord with his Jewish roots.
In Mark and Luke, as well as in Matthew, the Spirit descends like a dove, and God’s voice from heaven announces Jesus’ divine sonship and reveals his Father’s approval of him. Notice that Matthew says that “the heavens were opened to him,” which suggests that only Jesus witnessed this phenomenon and, by extension, that only he heard the voice of God speaking. Yet the Gospel of John indicates that John the Baptist at least saw “the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove . . . on him” (John 1:32).
Of course, one important purpose of the baptism-in-the-Jordan narratives in all three synoptic accounts is to witness to Jesus’ deepest identity, that is, that he is the Son of God, with whom God is “well pleased.” That much is common to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. As we pray this mystery of the Rosary, it reminds us of Jesus’ divinity in a world where many do not believe that Jesus is divine.
At the same time, we may remind ourselves that, in the Gospels, context is always significant. The verses that come before and after any given saying or parable of Jesus, for example, affect how we understand that saying or parable. In Matthew’s Gospel, the baptism of Jesus segues right into the temptation of Jesus in the desert. In effect, Matthew follows up an affirmation of Jesus’ divinity with an affirmation of his humanity.
Sometimes believers tend to neglect this balance in their attitude toward Jesus, overlooking or downplaying his humanity in favor of his divinity. In a secularized culture, however, the opposite is more common: people think of Jesus as just “a good man.” In such a cultural context, therefore, it’s good that the first of the Luminous mysteries reminds us of Jesus’ divinity.
This is an excerpt from The Rosary Handbook: A guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers, and Those in Between by Mitch Finley. Published by The Word Among Us Press 2017. Available from www.wau.org/books