The victory of justice and mercy: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 1:7–11:

This is what John the Baptist proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Blessed are the meek, Jesus would later teach, for they will inherit the earth. Our readings today point to this foreshadowing of the Beatitudes in the coming of Christ as we celebrate the feast day of His baptism. Jesus spent His entire ministry, right up to and including His passion. demonstrating the virtue and assured victory of meekness, and the baptism at the Jordan gives us one of its clearest signs.

To grasp this, we have to define the word meek. In our secular age, “meek” usually means lowly, powerless, shy, or weak. Merriam-Webster’s definitions have that sense of it — “deficient in spirit or courage,” “submissive,” “mild,” and so on. Even the more positive definitions from their dictionary don’t sound all that laudable — “not violent or strong,” “enduring injury with patience and without resentment.” The example the dictionary uses for that is “a meek child dominated by his brothers.”

That doesn’t sound very “blessed” to me, and probably doesn’t to you either. So why would Jesus proclaim that the blessed would inherit anything other than bullying brothers? Meekness means something different in the scriptures; in fact, in some ways it has an opposite meaning from its modern use. Meek doesn’t indicate a lack of strength or an inability to defend one’s self. Meek refers to strength and power set aside for the purposes of others, of sacrificing one’s strength and authority in order to lift the weaker up.

There are two options for Old and New Testament readings today, but we see this call to mercy from strength in both options from Isaiah. In the passage from Isaiah 55, the Lord tells scoundrels and the wicked to forsake their ways and thoughts and to turn to Him for mercy, “to our God, who is generous and forgiving.” In Isaiah 42, the issue of the Lord’s merciful meekness is made even more explicit, and foreshadows Christ’s baptism at the Jordan:

Thus says the LORD: Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, until he establishes justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for his teaching.

The foreshadowing of the baptism is obvious, but consider the rest of this prophecy. How will justice triumph over the earth? Without shouting, without crying out, without “taking it to the streets” as we say these days. Justice will prevail through mercy without even harming a bruised reed. It will prevail as gently as, say, a dove alighting on one’s shoulder.

This is the scriptural definition of “meek”; the sheathing of one’s power to benefit others. The Lord could impose His will by force upon us; He could wipe us all out and start over from scratch, if that was in His nature. But that isn’t the nature of the Lord, and that’s the point. God’s nature is pure love, and specifically purely agape or caritas love. It is the self-giving, self-sacrificing love from which this meekness originates.

We see this in Jesus’ baptism, too; John the Baptist even raises the point with Jesus when He arrives. John had earlier told pilgrims to the Jordan that he would be unworthy to loosen the Messiah’s sandal thongs, and suggests when Jesus arrives that perhaps it would be more fitting for Jesus to baptize him (Matthew 3:14). Instead, however, Jesus condescends to allow John authority to baptize him “to fulfill all righteousness.”

Condescend is another term that has changed in modern times. The current definition is possibly even more negative than meek, and again represents the opposite of its theological meaning. Our modern meaning relates to haughtiness, showy superiority, and insultingly patronizing. In the scriptural sense, though, condescend is the action of meekness. It is the opposite of haughtiness — it is the action of putting aside the haughty differential between two people and to relate directly on the same level.

Jesus’ birth is the condescension of the Lord to adopt human form and to live a human life as the means to provide all of us the firm path to salvation. Jesus lived through His human nature rather than solely through His divine powers to show us what it means to be authentically human in God’s plan. That is a humbling act rather than a haughty act, and an example of meekness unparalleled in human history.

This is what we are meant to know in the baptism and the theophany that follows it. The Lord expressed His delight in this exercise of meekness, not because of the baptism itself but because of the connection it created between humanity and the Trinitarian life. It is in this cooperation that justice and mercy will triumph, in the adoption of universal meekness in which we all can finally see each other as brothers and sisters in God’s family.

The front page image is a detail from “Baptism of Christ” by Andrea Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, 1480. Currently on display at the Uffizi. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

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