‘John preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” (Mark 1:7) This is followed by a description of Jesus’ baptism, after which the Holy Spirit comes down on him and a voice says from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11) We are meant to understand that Jesus is this mightier one who is to come after John, the one who ‘will baptise us with the Holy Spirit.’ (Mark 1:8) This is Mark’s ‘Good News about Jesus Christ.’ (Mark 1:1) In his baptism we see Jesus being baptised with the Holy Spirit — his baptism is a description of the work he himself is to do, that is, to baptise with the Holy Spirit. This work he handed on to his disciples (Mark 16:16; Matthew 28:19), till it came down to us when we were baptised. What happened to us at our baptism is the same as that which happened to Jesus: ‘No sooner had he come up out of the water than he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit, like a dove, descending on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11) Our baptism makes us beloved sons and daughters of God.
In our first reading the prophet Isaiah says to us, “Pay attention, come close now, listen carefully to my life-giving, life-nourishing words. I’m making a lasting covenant commitment with you, the same that I made with David: sure, solid, enduring love.” (Isaiah 55:3) Through our baptism God makes a covenant of everlasting love with us: We truly are beloved sons and daughters. This prophecy also points the way to us, points to what is expected of us, as beloved sons and daughters — a way that is perfectly summed up for us in opening lines of Benedict’s Rule: ‘Listen carefully, my son/my daughter, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice of a father who loves you; welcome it and faithfully put it into practice.’ (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:1) We are to listen to God’s word and put it into practice (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:35, 5-6), or as Benedict simply puts it: “If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts.” (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:10) When we do really listen to God’s word, when we hear it and obey it, we will hear God say to us: “With you I am well-pleased.” (Mark 1:11. C.f.: John 14:21, 23) Such attentive listening ought not to be thought of as somehow limiting or impinging. For, as Isaiah puts it, his are ‘life-giving, life-nourishing words’; or as Benedict has is: ‘What page, what passage of the inspired book of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest guide for human life?’ (Rule of St Benedict 73:3) Or, as Jesus was to say of his own mission: “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) As are all of his Covenants, the Covenant God makes with us at baptism is a covenant of life: ‘Do this and you will live.’ (C.f.: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Rule of St Benedict Prologue:39) God’s word of life to us is to be found in the Good News (Mark 1:1, 15), God’s word to us in Christ; in it we can hear God saying to us though Jesus: “Pay attention, come close now, listen carefully to my lifegiving, life-nourishing words.” (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict Prologue:14-17; John 5:39) Or, as Benedict has it: “What, dear brothers/dear sisters, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us? See how the Lord in his love shows us the way to life.” (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:19-20) Life is on offer; life is the promise.
This is not to say that listening to God’s word and putting it into practice is easy. Sometimes it can take us a long time to work out just what God is asking of us in his word, to see just what it is that we are to do. And then we have to do it — as St Paul puts it: “To will good works is present in me, but to do them is not. I do not do the good I want to do, but I practice the evil I do not want.” (Romans 7:18-19) If we are honest, this is us, too! Yet Benedict assures us that ‘the Lord waits for us to translate into action, as we should, his holy teaching.’ “Therefore,” he says, “our lifespan has been lengthened by way of a truce, that we may amend our misdeeds.” (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:35-36) There will be enough time for us to figure it out and do it, to truly become his beloved son/daughter. So, Benedict just urges us to have a go: “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It’s bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:48-49) Later he will say to us: “All this the Lord will by the Holy Spirit graciously manifest in us.” (Rule of St Benedict 7:70) That is, that same Spirit, which comes upon us in our baptism, will gradually works its magic in us, till at last ‘all that we once performed with dread, we now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue.’ (Rule of St Benedict 7:68-69) When we are troubled by our inability to do as we are bid (Rule of St Benedict 68:1-5), the Lord simply reminds us, as he did with Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God,” and to whom he had likewise promised: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:35, 37) This Spirit is Christ’s gift to us; this is what he came to give us. (Mark 1:8; John 20:22)
This Spirit is that same Spirit that ‘hovered over the waters’ ‘in the beginning’ in the Creation Story in Genesis. (Genesis 1:1-2) Later in that story we are told that God said, “Let us make humankind in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves.” (Genesis 1:26) In Jesus we see one like us who is the image of God; we have God’s word for it: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” (Mark 9:8) In giving us his Spirit, we can be like him; thus is God’s work of creation brought to completion. (1 John 3:2; John 1:12; Romans 8:29; Hebrews 4:1) Ours is to believe; we demonstrate our faith by our getting up again after each and every time we stuff up … holding firmly to God’s word to us: “Nothing is impossible with God.” (Hebrews 3:6) Thus do we co-operate with God’s Holy Spirit working in us. This Jesus says to us as he comes to finally and fully baptise us with this Holy Spirit and bring it to completion: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he says this, he will breathe on us and say to us, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21-22) With our baptism finally completed, comes a commission to do as Jesus did: we are to baptise others with this same Holy Spirit; we are to lead them in the ways of the Spirit, till they, too, can hear and heed God’s holy word and put it into practice, and so know his power at work in them (C.f.: Luke 7:28); we have our part to play in our own Creation Story. That we can do all this is the promise made to us when first we came to the water to be baptised. We should look forward to and long for the coming of this Holy Spirit upon us, for it is God’s blessing come upon us (Psalm 133:3) … when he sees himself in us, and so when we are empowered to be fully the human being we are created to be, one just like Jesus, one able to give life, when we will know ourselves to be God’s beloved son/daughter in whom he is well-pleased.” (Genesis 1:31)