Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then, he allowed Him. After Jesus was baptized, He came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down upon Him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3: 13-17).
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28: 19-20).
On Monday, 9 January, the Church celebrates the mystery of the Baptism of the Lord. The first quote mentioned above relates to the beginning of Jesus’ public life when He submitted to baptism. The second quote from St. Matthew comes from the conclusion of Jesus’ public life at His Ascension when He gave the divine mandate to baptize all nations for salvation.
The Church, in fact, recognizes a triple public manifestation of Our Lord to the world: the Epiphany when the Magi offered their gifts to the newborn King, Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan River, and His first public miracle at the wedding feast in Cana. Each of these three events uniquely reveals who Jesus is as both Messiah and Lord.
Since Jesus Christ is both God and Man, the question that naturally comes up is why He needed to be baptized by His cousin. Normally, baptism was reserved to Gentiles who converted to Judaism. Because ethnic Jews were born into the Old Covenant with Abraham, the sign of their bond with God was circumcision for males and a religious ritual for females.
St. John the Baptist’s baptism was special, therefore. This is why we see the religious leaders going out into the desert to observe what he is doing. Crowds were flocking to him—both Jews and Gentiles. Even ethnic Jews now participated in his baptism (Matthew 3:6-8). His was a baptism of repentance. The mission of St. John was to prepare the way for Jesus. St. John preached in the desert that now was the time “to turn back” (to convert) to God and produce the works of God. St. John was telling his crowds that just because they were born or even converted to Judaism, this alone was not going to be enough to be united to God. Something more was necessary. The people who were turned toward God must now act and do His good works in their own lives. This message is exactly what Jesus would teach, also.
Jesus came to the Jordan River, however, not to show His conversion to God the Father; He needed no conversion because Christ was always in union with His Father. Indeed, He came to show us publicly that this is the case at His baptism.
Therefore, Jesus submits in humility to St. John’s baptism even though the Baptist protests that it ought to be John baptized by Jesus. In order that all righteousness be fulfilled, Jesus shows John and us that being turned to God always involves a spirit of humility first. Without humility, the individual believes that he can do and believe whatever he wants regardless of what God or the Church has revealed. The lack of humility is painfully evident in today’s world and Church, unfortunately.
Jesus is also called by name publicly. God the Father rarely speaks in the New Testament because His Son, Jesus, is, in His very Person, the eternal Word of God. That is why Jesus has definitely revealed everything for our salvation that needs to be revealed and no one else will come to accomplish this after Him. The Catholic Church uniquely explains and interprets the authentic Word to us in each and every age (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 65-67). Because Jesus is the natural Son of the Father, His revelation is definitive and not open to acceptance by consensus or compromise. He gives us the Truth. We either conform ourselves to Him or we do not. The consequences then follow of either eternal salvation or damnation.
Jesus desires to fulfill all righteousness also by identifying Himself with sinners. God’s plan of salvation for man involves His Son’s Blood being shed to show how important our union with Him truly is. Jesus, in His very Person as both God and man, is the bridge between divinity and humanity. He heals our wounded human nature by submitting to the consequences of fallen humanity, even though He Himself does not live with a wounded nature. The fact that Jesus would suffer the greatest humiliations and still desire to offer us adoption into His divine Godhead shows just how magnanimous God truly is compared with our often petty actions, attitudes, and views.
Jesus’ Baptism also shows us the virtue of obedience to God’s plan. We often do not like to submit to anyone or anything because we like to think we are in command. St. John himself did not understand the significance of Jesus’ act. However, St. John followed Christ’s command to allow this Baptism. God’s providence is far superior to our limited knowledge. Submitting in obedience to His commands is what is most pleasing to the Father. Because St. John did, in fact, allow this Baptism to take place, today we are enriched because of his humble obedience at the Jordan River.
Christ’s mission is also foreshadowed with His Baptism. Unlike the symbolism of repentance that St. John emphasized, Jesus’ plunging into the Jordan and rising from the water symbolized something far greater. His Paschal Mystery—Jesus’ suffering, death, and Resurrection—is encapsulated in this event three years before the Sacred Mysteries took place. Water was always seen by the Jews as a sign of both destruction (Noah and the ark and the escape through the Red Sea) and renewal (Ezekiel’s vision and Elijah ending the drought in Israel). When Jesus went down into the water, His action symbolized His plunging into death for three days in the tomb. When He emerged from the water, this action foreshadowed His emerging from the tomb at the Resurrection.
Consequently, the crowd experienced the Trinity Himself that day in the desert. God the Father confirmed both His Son and His mission, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus as the sign that He is the Anointed One to fulfill His Father’s mission, and the Son submitted perfectly to His Father’s will. The greatest work of the Blessed Trinity would be accomplished at the Resurrection, but mankind needed to be prepared for God’s greatest act beforehand. God provides signs of His mighty works to confirm their divine origin. The Baptism of Christ, therefore, prepared His people for the Resurrection. Just as God was present at the creation of the world in Genesis by His Word, so He is uniquely present to prepare mankind for the recreation of the world in the order of His grace through the Word Himself (Jesus).
The baptism that we experience, therefore, is different from St. John’s baptism. We are baptized into the very life and Person of Jesus Christ. Everything that He accomplished in His Paschal Mystery is shared with us when we become the Father’s adopted sons and daughters at the font. Therefore, we possess an indelible dignity here in this world that foreshadows the destiny that Jesus prepares for us eternally. We pray that we will live each day reminded of that dignity that has been imparted to us out of God’s sheer love and desire to have us united with Him forever and always. May our daily thoughts, words, and actions bear this out in our lives reflecting God’s blessings to us and shared with those around us.
May you have a most blessed and holy week!
Fr. Shawn William Cutler