A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for January 13, 2013, the Baptism of the Lord | Carl E. Olson
Is 42:1-4, 6-7 or Is 40:1-5, 9-11
Ps 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10 or Ps 104:1b-2, 3-4, 24-25, 27-28, 29-30
Acts 10:34-38 or Or Ti 2:11-14; 3:4-7
Lk 3:15-16, 21-22
baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins, why did Jesus insist on being
baptized by his cousin, John? And if baptism, as St. Peter wrote, “now saves
you … through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 3:21), why would the
Messiah deem it appropriate, even necessary, to be baptized? What, was the
point of the Lord’s baptism in the Jordan River?
These and related questions fascinated and perplexed many of the early Church
fathers and theologians. The baptism of Christ, writes Fr. Kilian McDonnell,
O.S.B., in his study of the topic, The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The
Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation (The Liturgical Press, 1996), “was widely discussed in all the currents
of theological reflection” in the early Church, “without doubt partly because
of the problems it posed.” From this discussion emerged many helpful
St. Justin Martyr (d. 165), one of the first great apologists, addressed the
baptism in his Dialogue with Trypho.
He emphasized that the Son had no need to be baptizedjust as he had no need to
be born, to suffer, or diebut did so in order to reveal himself to mankind;
the baptism, in other words, was the messianic manifestation, a sign for the
Church first, and then the world. When Jesus came to the waters, St. Justin
wrote, “He was deemed a carpenter,” but the proclamation of the Father and the
descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove showed him to be far more than
a mere worker of wood.
In his famous work, Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus (d. c. 202) focused on the participation of those who
believe in Christ in the anointing of the Savior. The connection between the
baptism and anointingitself an essential Messianic conceptis already evident
in the New Testament, as heard in today’s reading from the Acts of the
Apostles: “…how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.”
This same anointing, St. Irenaeus wrote, is given to those who are baptized
into Christ. The Holy Spirit, having descended upon the Son, has become “accustomed
in fellowship with Him to dwell in the human race, to rest with human beings,
and to dwell in the workmanship of God, working the will of the Father in them,
and renewing them from their old habits into the newness of Christ.”
delved into the mystery and meaning of the Jordan River, which was already, at
the time of Christ, the site of many key events in the history of Israel. St.
Hippolytus (d. c. 236) referred to “the Grand Jordan”; Origen (d. 254) wrote
that just as “no one is good, except the one only God, the Father,” likewise
“no river is good except the Jordan.” St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. c. 394), in his
treatise, On the Baptism of Jesus,
wrote, “For Jordan alone of rivers, receiving in itself the first-fruits of
sanctification and benediction, conveyed in its channel to the whole world, as
it were from some fount in the type afforded by itself, the grace of Baptism.”
Just as Joshua had entered the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan, Jesus
opened the way to heaven by entering and dividing the same waters.
Ephrem (d. 373) wrote a beautiful hymn in which he connected the baptism of
Jesus with the womb of Mary and the sacrament of the Eucharist: “See, Fire and
Spirit in the womb that bore you! See, Fire and Spirit in the river where you
were baptized! Fire and Spirit in our Baptism; in the Bread and the Cup, Fire
and Holy Spirit!” Christ, the Light of the World, dwelt first in the womb of
the Virginwho was thus “baptized” by her Sonand then in the womb of the
Jordan; he emerged from both as the Incarnate Word, the Savior of mankind.
Those who are baptized thus become the children of Mary and partakers of the
body, blood, soul, and divinity of her Son.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the January
10, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)