Lk tells us about the political context during the time of John Baptist. Palestine is occupied and people may have been feeling the occupation as eternal. Pontius Pilate has been ruling with blood (Lk13/1) and Herod, allied with Rome, reigned in Galilee (13/31). The population is weighed down by taxes and military violence. Land tillers see their lands grabbed. Religious authorities take the beasts from people for Temple practices. The Temple and its sanctuary has become a place for bandits.
John is son of Zechariah, a Temple priest. He is from the sacerdotal class that exercises office in the Temple. John is part of that class. But John is not in Jerusalem; he is far from the Temple; he is in the Jordan river—that place where, once upon a time, the Hebrew people passed to enter Canaan. For John it is time to begin all over again. It is time to cross the Jordan river again. The axe is on the tree roots—the tree of “civilization”. John sounds “subversive”.
What must one do? John says to share, stop accumulating, get out of the “malls”, stop consumerism, stop destroying the ecology—change. Change our life styles. Change our behavior. Stop violating the common good. Stop violence.
The word “baptism” may make us think of the ritual that allows us to be members of a club; members of an institution. Perhaps it is a membership with perks obtained. But for John it means a “plunge”; a jump into the water. It means inviting the oppressed and marginalized to open up to the Messiah; it means option to change.
Well, John will later have his head chopped. This time, however, it is Jesus who plunges in the Jordan. The incarnation tells us that Jesus identifies with humanity—with all flesh. That incarnation orients to the priority given to the “little ones”, the oppressed and marginalized.
Baptism means then for us also a plunge. We plunge into the sacred—the fire and breath. It means discipleship with Jesus; be plunged in his own mission against the domination of darkness and sin.
Our Christianity can be vain—in the way we live it. Yes, we turn our Church into an “club”; we get baptized and have our “ID-cards”. But do we want change? Do we want a better society of justice? Do we have concern for the little ones? Are we really plunged into the mission of Christ? Do we opt for change of our ways against the destruction of the environment? Do we try to make our world more habitable, with cleaner air and water? And so we need to review our understanding of Baptism. It is to be plunged into discipleship.