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.”
The Chosen People where awaiting the coming of the Messiah, the anointed one. Jesus refers to himself as being anointed by the Spirit. It is after his baptism, when the Spirit descends upon him, that he is anointed publicly.
Anointing in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, anointing was an external sign of an interior gift given by the Spirit. The Messiah, awaited by the chosen people, was to be a single great personage anointed by God himself, and endowed with the Spirit of wisdom, knowledge and power:
“A shoot will spring from the stock of Jesse; a new shoot will grow from his roots. On him will rest the Spirit of Yahweh: a spirit of wisdom and insight; a spirit of counsel and power; a spirit of knowledge and fear of Yahweh: his inspiration lie in fearing Yahweh” (Is. 11:1-4).
The Spirit’s anointing of Jesus
Jesus himself refers to having received an anointing by the Spirit, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me” (Lk 4:16-21). The Spirit descends over Jesus, fulfilling the promise found in Isaiah. The precise moment of Jesus’ public anointing—he had already been anointed privately by the Spirit at his conception and birth —is the Spirit’s descent over him after his baptism.
Scholars explain it as follows: the Spirit’s descent over Jesus is his public anointing. The Spirit takes corporeal form—that of a dove—descending from heaven. The point of the theophany of the dove is that the Spirit hovers over Jesus and not in him, calling to mind the prophecy of Isaiah, how the Spirit would rest upon the servant anointed by God. Luke thus insists on the corporeal aspect of the dove, which was visible to the crowd gathered with Jesus during his baptism. St. Thomas highlights this point also: “The Holy Ghost is said to have descended in the shape or semblance of a dove, not in the sense that the dove was not real, but in order to show that He did not appear in the form of His substance.”
Hence before all present, Jesus becomes the Christ: “Whence Aaron is called “Christ,” from the “chrism,” which is “the unction;” which, when made spiritual, furnished an appropriate name to the Lord, because He was “anointed” with the Spirit by God the Father.”
Next Saturday we will take a closer look at what the Fathers thought about Jesus’ anointing.