The Life of Christ

Mgr E Le Camus




MEANWHILE John the Baptist had received from God the assurance that the Messiah would be made known to him by a miraculous sign,1 and it was while he was administering baptism that this sign was to appear. The divine plan was that the Ancient Covenant should come to an end then in the desert where it had begun, and that the New Covenant should be inaugurated solemnly by the authentic manifestation of the true Savior of Israel.

According to the most probable opinion, the Baptist awaited this manifestation during almost six months. Vainly did his words stir up the souls of men, and vainly did his eye search their consciences: no one having the sign of the Redeemer had as yet presented himself.

But knew in His own good time, which was that marked by Providence, a young man came down from the mountains of Galilee to ask for baptism, mingling with the other sons of Israel. He was about thirty years of age; His name was Jesus. Up to that time, confined in the obscurity of a carpenter's shop, He had done nothing to distinguish Himself from the multitude. Not that by a close observance the eye of His fellowcitizens could not perceive in His words and in even the most ordinary relations of life certain luminous rays of a soul incomparably grand and religious. But who could imagine that the Savior of the world2 was to come out of Nazareth and that this Savior would be a carpenter?

John declares that for his part he never even suspected the Messianic character of Jesus. It may be that, in affirming that he did not know his relative until the day of His baptism, he meant that their ways had been entirely separate since childhood, through the medium of events not mentioned in the Gospel. Besides, it would seem natural that Elizabeth and Zachary had kept Mary's secret of the miraculous conception of Jesus and thus, especially if they had died soon after,3 had left their own son in ignorance of the heavenly manifestations that encircled the cradle of his cousin.

St. Luke appears not to be disturbed by this difficulty, and, after having closely compared the birth of these two children, he contents himself with telling us that one lived in the desert and the other at Nazareth. He gives us no hint that any relations had existed between them before this baptism. Jesus, indeed, had not been obliged to hasten His hour of coming by revealing to John His religious impressions, and John in the desert was entirely cut off from the family relations which would have made him acquainted with Jesus. If it were true, even, that one of the numerous Essenian communities, dwelling on the shores of the Dead Sea, had received the son of Zachary in his early age, the complete separation of the two cousins would be less difficult to understand. But the religious views of the Precursor are so unlike the Essene tendencies, that it is impossible to believe him to be a disciple of such masters, unless he had set himself the task of refuting them and of overthrowing the doctrines of those who had educated him. However that may be, at this moment in the Gospel history John knows that the Messiah is in Israel; that He is on the point of proclaiming Himself; that God, by a miracle, is to reveal Him to him in the waters of the Jordan; but he knows not who the Messiah is or whence He shall come.

Jesus, then, came to the Precursor asking to be baptized. A preliminary conversation between the penitent and the Baptist naturally ensued. They piously exchanged their thoughts, and as Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of the Messiah, of the moral woes of the Jewish people and of humanity, John felt himself urged to salute in Him the prophetic ideal of the Messiah. He listened respectfully to His attractive discourse, and, gradually turning his inspired eye into the soul that was revealing itself to him so astounding in its grandeur, he knew he was in the presence of the awaited Master of Israel. How the heart of this Neophyte, quite differently from his own, was the enemy of all sin and free from all stain! How Heaven, with its purity, its harmony, its charity, was reflected in this beautiful and transparent conscience! What enthusiasm! what aspirations! what generosity! Jesus speaks, and in spite of His modesty, He impresses Himself on him who hears Him. His views of reparation, of mercy, of penance for the guilty world, His penetration of the most profound truths, His knowledge of the divine plan, reveal the superior mission He has received; and when, having checked this escaping flow of religious life that fills His heart, He wishes to bend down to receive the cleansing waters, He finds the Baptist at His feet, trembling with emotion and submission, crying out to Him: "I ought to be baptized by Thee, and comest Thou to me?" To ask to be purified was, in fact, to seek to raise one's life up to the moral level of him who purified, to be associated with his religious perfection, and to be made a sharer in his sanctity. But John deemed himself too base to be able to communicate anything to this eminent Proselyte, and he declared that he had nothing to give, but everything to receive. "Suffer it to be so now," said Jesus. "For so it becometh us to fulfill all justice."

In the case of John, justice meant that he, destined to remain the last representative of the law of Moses, should not become the firstborn of the Gospel. Like Moses, he had as his mission to point out to his people the promised land into which he was not to enter. His lot was to die at the very gate of the blessed kingdom, without sharing in its glorious benefits. He was to be saved by faith in the Messiah Who was to come, and not by the sacraments instituted by the Messiah when He had come. For Jesus, justice was that, born under the law, as St. Paul says,4 He should obey the law, that He should fulfill the law until He had changed it. A son of Israel, a member by birth and circumcision of that Israelitism that looked forward to the Christ, He strictly follows the religious movement of His people, with them He advances toward the king who comes, until the moment when His Father shall command Him to check all this agitation with these words: "Go no farther; the Christ, the King you seek; I am He." Until this command is given Him, He will find that for Him justice consists in submission to all the demands of the law of Moses: circumcision, presentation in the Temple, baptism by John, and so on. In justice He intends to participate in the ritualism that sustains religious life in Israel,
until that day when He shall have made all sacrifices and all symbols useless by consummating them in His own offering on the cross. Hence, when John desires to bend before the New Covenant, in which he is to have no part, he is guilty of a pious impatience forbidden him by his character; but that Jesus should wish to honor the Old Testament before He brings it to an end, that He should publicly ratify the Precursor's mission and do homage to his authority, is an act of justice commanded by His wisdom.

Moreover, another lofty inspiration guides His conduct. It is less for Himself than for all mankind, whose official representative He is, that He comes to ask baptism. In cleansing humanity now in figure in the waters of the Jordan He prepares its future purification in the bloody ablution of the cross. In His eyes baptism is the figure and even the prelude of His death, and by His conduct with St. John, He officially accepts His mission as Redeemer, a mission replete with woe as with glory. The unknown of Nazareth bids farewell to His calm and happy existence; He enters now upon the long and generous martyrdom of His public life. In this way does He intend to fulfill all justice.

The Baptist suffered himself to be persuaded and baptized Him. What transpired then in the soul of Jesus so deeply conscious of the solemnity of that present moment, the pen of the Evangelist has not essayed to tell. St. Luke alone remarks that after His baptism the Neophyte, falling on His knees, opened His heart in most ardent and filial was admiring Him in an ecstasy of adoration. Suddenly the heavens seemed torn apart; the Spirit of God, descending like a dove of light, paused and rested on the head of the Baptized. At the same time a voice spoke from on high: "This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased."

Jesus5 and John6 seem to have been the only witnesses of this heavenly manifestation. John speaks of it as of a sign granted to him personally;7 and on the other hand if the people had witnessed it, the Evangelists would not have failed to chronicle the enthusiasm produced by an event so strange. Whether it is that the Precursor and the Messiah were alone at this time, or that God once again8 reserved the faculty of beholding His sign for those alone who were worthy to contemplate it, matters not. Two witnesses perceived it distinctly: it was, then, not a moral impression, but a physical reality with a definite spiritual signification. From the heavens, opened to their very depths, there came a ray of light that proved the intimate union of God with Jesus. This ray is the Holy Spirit, the bond of union from all eternity between the Father and the Son in Their heavenly life, and continuing this intimate and substantial relation between the Father in Heaven and the Incarnate Son on earth. The Spirit, in His manifestation, takes the form of a dove, because He is the spirit of purity, of peace, and of love, and because the dove is the symbol of these virtues; He alights upon Jesus, not so much for the purpose of producing a new condition, as to indicate and make clear that which existed already, the union of the Father and the Son. Jesus, the Son of God, has indeed nothing to receive; He has everything from the beginning, and the voice of heaven confirms this by saying, not: "This is He who is become my Son, in Whom I shall be well pleased," but, "This is my beloved Son, in Whom [since long ago] I am well pleased."

But do these considerations exhaust the meaning of the baptism of Jesus? Probably not, for, from the point of view of the Baptized and of His Mission, the rite practiced seems to have been an event of capital importance. The Evangelists plainly attach to it a prominence which theology and exegesis have perhaps too readily overlooked. The prayer of Jesus, like all that precedes or follows it, seems to indicate in Him a life, not more perfect, but different. But different in what sense? Exteriorly only, or within? It is not easy to say; for, here again we touch upon the mystery of the hypostatic union. In reality the Spirit Who descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove, seems to complete a creative work which He had begun, thirty years before, in the womb of Mary. The Messiah, by the intervention of Heaven, is officially named, and Peter in after years is right in saying that Jesus "was anointed with the Holy Ghost and with power."9

John, for whose sake this heavenly sign was given, no longer doubts. He proclaims it publicly: for him the Messiah is no longer to be awaited or to be looked for; He is come, and John has seen Him; He is Jesus of Nazareth. The last days of his apostolate will be spent in announcing Him to Israel.

Jesus was then about thirty years old. That was the age at which, in the prescriptions of Moses,10 the Levite was admitted to the exercise of his ministry, and the age at which, among civilized peoples, the young man, mature enough to be of real service to his country, could busy himself with public matters.11 Since the law permits it, and God's allotted hour summons Him, He goes then to inaugurate His work; but first we must know more exactly who He is, what was His origin, what is the history of His earliest years.

If there be real interest in clearing up the obscurity that surrounds the origin of a great man, how much greater the joy we shall feel in gathering the details that reveal to us the first years of the Son of God! The few pages that form the basis of the following book are incomparable for their poetry, their freshness, and their innocent simplicity. It has been said that it is a mother's privilege to relate with delight the history of her children. It is certainly a mother that tells us what we know of Jesus' first years; it is her memory, or rather her heart, that has preserved in the story of His childhood the lively coloring, the touching grace, and the pious tone that make it an inimitable composition. After Pentecost, Mary, who, like the Apostles, had received the Holy Ghost, must have been urged more than once to break, for the edification of the nascent Church, a silence she had religiously kept until then.12 She spoke; and her stories, carefully collected, enriched the first oral Gospel. St. Luke and St. Matthew profited by them later on.

1 St. John i, 33.

2 St. John i, 46.

3 They were already advanced in age, as we have seen, when John the Baptist was born.

4 Gal. iv, 4.

5 St. Mark i, 10, and very probably St. Matt. iii, 16, say that Jesus beheld this prodigy.

6 St. John i, 32.

7 St. John i, 33.

8 It is not a rare thing to learn from Scripture that all witnesses do not equally perceive the prodigies that are brought about. (Acts
ix, 7; St. John xi.)

9 Acts x, 38.

10 Numbers iv, 3 47. However, in ch. viii, 24 the Levite begins at 25.

11 Xenophon, Memor. 1; Dionys. of Halicar., Hist., iv, 6.

12 St. Luke ii, 19.

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