On today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord, I have the great joy of administering this sacrament to my own newborn nephew, James Patrick. Although he won’t remember it, this will be the best and most important day of his life. This is no hyperbole. There is nothing more important anyone can obtain in life than the Sacrament of Baptism. This will be the day of his spiritual rebirth, in which he will receive a share of the Divine Life, making him a child of God and an heir of Heaven. The Lord teaches: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5).
The water I will use to baptize my nephew was gathered from the Jordan River on my recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It is well known, of course, that this is the river where Jesus was baptized at the hands of His cousin, St. John. The many wonderful events of the Old Testament that took place within this same river’s waters are not as well known. Especially on today’s feast, they are worthy of prayerful reflection because they reveal the designs of Divine Providence in prefiguring Christ’s institution of the Sacrament of Baptism.
The Patriarchs and the Jordan River
To prepare the world for His coming, God called Abraham and made a promise to him:
…you shall be the father of a multitude of nations…And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you…And I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God” (Gen 17:4-8).
Those descendants were the people that God would be born into when He entered the world. Abraham left the region of Mesopotamia and crossed the Jordan River to enter into the land God had promised. And this promise of God was extended to Abraham’s son Isaac and then to his grandson Jacob, who was later named Israel. Israel’s twelve sons would be the primogenitors of the twelve different tribes that made up the ancient nation of Israel. Jacob was forced to cross the Jordan himself on two occasions: when he first had to flee from his brother and then again upon his return (Gen 12:4-6; 28:1-10; 33:17-20).
God set Abraham’s descendants apart as His own chosen people and gave them the land of Canaan as their inheritance. After his sojourning, Abraham came to this land after crossing the waters of the Jordan River. In the New Covenant, the People of God can now be members of any tribe or race by crossing the waters of baptism. The prayer of Anointing after Baptism reads: “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has…welcomed you into his holy people.” The baptized are members of Christ’s Mystical Body on Earth, the Church. God’s children through baptism are heirs, then, to the Eternal Promised Land of His Kingdom of Heaven.
Later, the Hebrews would find themselves enslaved in the foreign land of Egypt. God liberated them under the leadership of Moses in what is known as the Exodus. During their years of wandering in the wilderness of the desert back to the land promised to them, God began to transmit to Moses the Torah, that is, the Law by which the People of God were to be governed. The foundational element of the Torah were the Ten Commandments, imparted by God to Moses atop Mount Sinai. The Lord wrote the Commandments on two tablets of stone, which He gave to Moses as a sign of the unique covenant between He and the Hebrew people. With the Law and their Land, the Jews were to be a lumen gentium, that is, a light to the nations.
Moses died atop Mount Nebo and the task of leading the people into the Promised Land fell to Joshua. Approaching the Jordan River opposite the city of Jericho, the feet of the priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, touched the water’s edge and the river stopped flowing. The whole nation was able to cross. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness of the desert, the chosen people were finally back in the land given to them by God (Joshua 3:14-7).
Just as the Israelites had to cross the waters of the Jordan River to escape slavery in Egypt to arrive in the Promised Land, all men have to cross the waters of baptism to escape the slavery of sin and death to enter into the Eternal Promised Land of the Kingdom of Heaven. The prayer of Anointing after Baptism reads: “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin…”
The Prophets and the Jordan River
Among the greatest figures of the Old Testament, along with Abraham and Moses, is the Prophet Elijah. The name of this prophet means “My God is Yahweh”, which he certainly lived up to through his proclamation of the One True God of Israel while staunchly condemning worship of the false god of Baal. At the end of the course of his earthly life, he left the city of Jericho and arrived at the bank of the Jordan River. The waters immediately receded upon his touching them with his cloak so he was able to cross on dry land. Upon reaching the other side he was was carried off to Heaven in whirlwind in chariot of fire and horses. His disciple, the Prophet Elisha, followed him across the river and witnessed all this. After receiving a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, he gathered his master’s cloak and used it to miraculously cross the river back over to the other side in the same manner as before (2 Kngs 2:1-14). This occurred near Jericho, the same spot along the Jordan where Joshua led the people to cross into the Promised Land.
Prior to being taken up into Heaven, Elijah had to cross the waters of the Jordan River. Elijah’s earthly life did not end in death but by his being taken up into Heaven by the whirlwind. Through the waters of baptism, we are given a share in the Divine Life by being brought into spiritual contact with the saving death and resurrection of Christ. From the Blessing and Invocation of God over the Baptismal Water: “May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with him to newness of life.”
During the course of Elisha’s ministry, he was approached by a commander in the Syrian army named Naaman who was suffering from leprosy. Elisha commanded Naaman to wash in the Jordan River seven times to be healed. When he did, this foreigner was converted to belief in the One True God saying to Elisha: “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.” (2 Kngs 5; 5:15).
It is the role of the father and mother, accompanied by the godparents, to present their child to the Church for baptism. At the beginning of the ritual the parents are questioned as to what they are asking of God’s Church for their child. The reply “faith” is among those that can be given. Later in the ritual the parents and godparents must make a profession of faith and declare their intention to have their child baptized into the faith of the Church they have just professed. It is immediately after this that the baby is baptized. The waters of baptism impart faith and healing from Original Sin just as the waters of the Jordan River gave faith and healing to Naaman from his leprosy.
As Elijah did not die but was taken up to Heaven directly, it was widely expected by the Jews that he would return. The later prophet Malachi foretold this: “Behold, I will send you Eli’jah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. (Malachi 4:5). A well-known Passover tradition is to set a place at the table for Elijah along with a cup of wine and an open door for him to enter. There is the hope that if Elijah comes, the Messiah himself would not be far behind. Recall this dialogue when the Lord along with Peter, James and John were descending Mount Tabor after the Transfiguration:
And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, ‘Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead. And the disciples asked him, ‘Then why do the scribes say that first Eli’jah must come?’ He replied, ‘Eli’jah does come, and he is to restore all things; but I tell you that Eli’jah has already come, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of man will suffer at their hands.’Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.” (Matt 17:9-13)
John, then, was destined to be the final prophet sent by God to prepare the world for His coming. He was called “the Baptist” because of the rite he initiated when he came of age as a sign of repentance for sin. He went out to the wilderness of the desert to Bethany beyond the Jordan to preach repentance, the coming of the Lord and to baptize. The “New Elijah” chose the very place where Joshua led the Israelites into the land God had promised them and where the “Old Elijah” was taken up into Heaven. At the Jordan River across from Jericho, he announced the coming of the long awaited Messiah saying:
After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mk 1:7-8)
The Lord Jesus grew up in the backwater town of Nazareth in Galilee. His cousin John was raised in the hill country of Judea in the town of Ain-Karim, some seven miles southwest of Jerusalem. When news reached the Lord that John was baptizing in the Jordan near Jericho, He interpreted it as a sign of Providence that the time had come for His public ministry to begin. He was thirty years old.
The Baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan
Jesus did not need to be baptized as did the Israelites who came to John as a confession of their sins. He, of course, was wholly without sin. He was baptized for the same reason He became a man, to place Himself in solidarity with our fallen race. The Baptism preached by John was symbolic and intended to arouse sorrow for sin and a commitment to a reformation of one’s life. It was a preparation for the Baptism that Christ would institute through the Church He established over the course of His ministry.
When John saw Jesus coming toward him, he proclaimed: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29b). When the Lord was baptized at the hands of John “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’” (Lk 3: 21b-22).
Of all the many and mighty events connected with this river, none can compare to the Baptism of the Lord. It was an epiphany of His Divinity and a foreshadowing of His institution of the most important sacrament. Over the course of the next three years of His earthly life and mission, Christ established the Catholic Church. To the Church He gave the seven sacraments as the primary means His sanctifying grace is dispensed to help one overcome sin and to live as a child of God. “See what love the Father has given us,” stated St. John the Evangelist, “that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn 3:1).
Baptism is the first of the Church’s seven sacraments as it brings the soul to life. As the Catechism states: “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (CCC 1213). And: “Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body” (CCC 1997).
Finally, emphasizing the utter importance of this sacrament, Christ ended His earthly life and mission by giving the Church a great commission: “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.” (Matt 28:19). Such is the great and joyful call of every one of us who has been baptized into Christ, whose own baptism we celebrate today.
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