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.
“When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Heaven, in the Old Testament, has a double meaning , describing both the dwelling place of God and a physical part of the universe. It is His supreme abode, where He reigns over heaven and earth (Is 6:1) from upon his throne, while looking down upon earth where “people appear to Him as grasshoppers” (Is 40:22).
PART II: The Opening of the Heavens
The parallel between heavens opening in the Old Testament and the heavens opening over Jesus.
In the Old Testament when heaven opened it meant divine revelation was happening: a giving of secrets and prophetic power. Centuries had passed, however, since God had visited his people in this fashion. There are two passages, both from the prophets, which use this imagery, and can be interpreted in light of Luke’s account of the theophany.
The first is from Ezekiel. Here we read, “In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the River Chebar, heaven opened and I saw a vision from God” (Ez 1:1).
The parallel between Ezekiel 1:1 and the Baptism of Christ is strong. Heaven opened over Ezekiel as he stood amid a crowd of people, near a river. He began to see visions from God and to preach with prophetic power. Jesus, too, stood near a river, amid people; heaven opened, the Holy Spirit descended, and his ministry, full of teaching and miracles began, unlike any seen before.
Second, in Isaiah, we find a moving prayer urging God to repeat his redemptive acts for his people; it is a prayer bold enough to ask for miracles of equal greatness to the Exodus:
“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down—in your presence the mountains would quake, as fire sets brushwood alight, as fire makes water boil—to make your name known to your foes; as the nations would tremble before you, at the unexpected miracles you would do” (Is 63:19; 64:1-2).
Isaiah’s prayer was heard: not only does God rends the heavens open over his Son, but they split open again at Pentecost, when the Spirit descended in the form of fire on the early Christian community, who carried Christ’s message to every nation. Here, in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism, the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled.
St Thomas Aquinas’ Reflection on the Heavens Opening Over Jesus
St Thomas explains the opening of the heavens by relating it to baptism.
First, he begins by considering its relationship to the sacrament of Baptism. “The principal power from which Baptism is derived is a heavenly power. Thus when Christ was baptized, heaven opened, to show that in future the heavenly power would sanctify baptism.”
Secondly, St Thomas shows how through faith received at baptism, we can transcend the present world: “Now by faith we gaze on heavenly things, which surpass the senses and human reason; in order to signify this, the heavens were opened when Christ was baptized.”
St. Thomas perceives that it is within this intense spiritual moment of Jesus’ baptism when the heavens open, a sign that communication between God and man has been re-established, both through the divine person of Christ himself, and through the sacrament of Baptism, which he instituted.
This intense spiritual communication leads us to the descent of the Spirit over Jesus in the form of a dove, whih we will take a closer look at next Saturday. Spoiler alert: It will forever change the way you think of doves and the Holy Spirit.
You might also be interested in reading: