The Meaning of the Baptism of the Christ
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Ps 28; Acts 10:34-38; Mk 1:7-11
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, the event which marks the end of the hidden life of Jesus Christ and the beginning of his public ministry. Yet this event is somewhat mysterious. Why, exactly, was Jesus baptized and how does his baptism help us?
The puzzle is that Jesus does not appear to need baptism. He does not need to be freed from sin, since he is without sin. He does not need to be born again as a child of God because he is the only-begotten Son of God. He does need to be made Christ-like because he is Christ. He does not need to enter the Church since he is the head of the Church. One might respond by saying that Jesus did not receive the Sacrament of Baptism but the baptism of John, which is only a precursor to Christian Baptism. This response does not, however, really resolve the difficulties, because John's baptism was for repentance from sin, and Jesus did not need to repent of sin. Why, then, was Jesus baptized?
One answer is that Jesus is teaching us the importance and effects of Baptism in the most humble and loving way possible, namely by example. In other words, Christ wished to be baptized in order to lead us to Baptism, and the scene at the Jordan teaches us the means and effects of the sacrament. A first lesson for us is that Jesus is baptized by John; he does not baptize himself. The fact of grace being mediated through the actions of another is emphasized repeatedly in Scripture, and is an important lesson today. To take a troubling contemporary issue, many Catholics have given up going to Confession; if challenged, they usually claim to confess their sins directly to God rather than confessing them to a priest. In other words, they effectively absolve themselves from sin. But this belief ignores the teaching of today's Gospel, which is that God usually chooses to mediate grace through other persons, especially the Church's ministers. If even Jesus, the Son of God, has the extraordinary humility to go to John for Baptism, we should have the humility to make use of the sacraments in the way they have been given to us, such as going to a priest for Confession. A second lesson from the scene of Jesus' Baptism is that the river Jordan flows down into the Dead Sea, the sea of death, perhaps indicating the way in which Original Sin, which leads to death, is washed away by the waters of Baptism. Third, the Baptism of Jesus 'tears the heavens apart', a sign of the way in which the grace of Baptism opens the gates of Heaven to us, that is, brings us into the Kingdom of Heaven. While there are extraordinary ways to receive the grace of Baptism without the liturgical rite of Baptism, such as martyrdom for Christ, no one can be saved and enter heaven without this grace. Fourth and most important, 'the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove' and the voice of the Father comes from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.” The explicit presence of the Trinity in this scene indicates that, through Baptism, we do something that even the greatest of the pagans could never do. The greatest pagan philosophers, such as Aristotle and Plato, recognized that there is a God. It is only with Baptism, however, that we recognize the persons of God, Father, Son and Spirit, since we have become children of God with the hope of seeing God face-to-face in Heaven.
A second answer to the question of why Jesus was baptized is that he made the waters holy, preparing them for our own Baptism and salvation. This interpretation is prefigured in the Old Testament Book of Exodus. In Exodus 15, when the people of Israel are thirsty in the wilderness, they come to the water of Marah, but it is bitter and they cannot drink it. Moses casts a tree into the water and the water becomes sweet and life giving. When a tree or piece of wood is mentioned in the Old Testament, it often prefigures Christ and the wood of his cross. So the event of the tree cast into the waters to purify them can signify Jesus entering the waters of Jordan to make the waters of Baptism life giving. As St John Chrysostom said in the early Church, Jesus was baptized, "that he might bequeath the sanctified waters to those who were to be Baptized afterwards." (Hom. IV In Matth.). In other words, by his Baptism, Jesus made the waters holy.
So it is Jesus who has made Baptism effective and life-giving for us, and by submitting to Baptism, he leads the way for us to follows. He teaches us the humility to make use of the sacraments in the way they have been given to us. He teaches us that Baptism washes away sin, opens heaven and enables us to know and to love the Most Holy Trinity.
Let us thank the Lord for opening the way to our salvation through Baptism. May Baptism bear its proper fruit in all of us, so that one day we may see the face of God in Heaven.
Fr. Andrew Pinsent, Sacred Heart Church, Sunningdale, 11th January 2009
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