• Isa. 42:1-4, 6-7
• Psa. 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10
• Acts 10:34-38
• Matt. 3:13-17
Growing up in a small Fundamentalist Bible chapel, I didn’t hear much about what baptism could or should actually do for me. On the contrary, I heard far more about what baptism couldn’t do: it couldn’t cleanse me of sin, make me right with God, or fill me with God’s grace. It was a classic example of a belief—or lack of a belief—being formed by a reaction against Catholic teaching. One thing we couldn’t abide was appearing even remotely susceptible to what we sometimes called “Romanism”.
If baptism was of so little value to me, why did Jesus bother to be baptized? After all, He was sinless and it seems that His very public baptism would suggest that He was just as much a sinner in need of repentance as those coming from Jerusalem and the surrounding area, “confessing their sins” (Matt. 3:6). And, indeed, today’s Gospel readily acknowledges that John the Baptist was taken aback by his cousin’s request to be baptized: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”
Jesus’ response was rather cryptic: “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” It suggests that His baptism was part of God’s plan of salvation. Not because Jesus needed to be cleansed, but because His baptism points out our desperate need to be cleansed of sin, made whole, and filled with God’s life. As parents know, it is better to set an example by doing than by saying. And children are usually more likely to respect and respond to a lived example.
The Catechism provides some other reasons for Jesus being baptized. It inaugurated His public life and ministry, and in doing so revealed the Triune nature of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This in turn opened the door—the flood gates!—to an ever-deepening appreciation of how and why our heavenly Father works for the salvation of mankind. “This is my beloved Son,” states the Father, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit and the sacrament of baptism we too become sons and daughters of God. “The Christian must enter into this mystery of humble self-abasement and repentance,” explains the Catechism, “go down into the water with Jesus in order to rise with him, be reborn of water and the Spirit so as to become the Father’s beloved son in the Son and ‘walk in newness of life’.” (CCC 537).
Baptism is not simply a symbolic action, but a supernatural transformation. Buried with Christ in baptism, we rise with Him and walk in the newness of life, having died to sin (cf., Rom. 6:1-12).
In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI has an entire chapter on the baptism of Jesus. The key to understanding that mysterious event, the Holy Father states, is found in the meaning of the word righteousness. Jesus’ response to John’s reluctance expressed His understanding that His kinsman’s baptism was a necessary, public way of showing “an unrestricted Yes to God’s will.” But the meaning of the baptism would not be fully known or revealed until it could be “seen in the light of the Cross and Resurrection.”
In other words, by stepping into the Jordan, Jesus demonstrated He was taking the place of sinners, as well as anticipating His death on the Cross. This is, Benedict notes, one reason why Jesus referred to His approaching crucifixion as a baptism: “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!” (Lk. 12:50).
Jesus did not descend into the waters because He needed to, but because we needed Him to. And this reflects the incredible love revealed in the Incarnation. God did not have to become man for our sake, but He did in order that we who were blind and living in darkness, as the prophet Isaiah wrote, could be cleansed of sin, made right with God, and be filled with God’s grace. That’s what baptism will do for you.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the January 13, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
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