We might ask ourselves why Jesus Christ submitted to the baptism of St. John the Baptist. After all, if Christ is the incarnate Son of God, the sinless Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, why would it be necessary for Him to be baptized? That’s a good question calling for an insightful answer.
The answer begins with a clear understanding that Jesus Christ did not need to be baptized. He, the Holy One of God, sanctified the waters of baptism, He wasn’t sanctified by them. He, the Holy One, made Baptism holy, not the other way around. By being baptized His intention was to reveal the love of God for us even though we have sinned against Him. By His own baptism Jesus leads us to repentance.
A few points come to mind. (1) Jesus was identifying Himself as being immersed in our sinful humanity, (2) He was emptying Himself of His divine glory and joining Himself into our human state of alienation from the Father, (3) His baptism opened up His public ministry, revealing His activity in our world as one of us.
In the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, we hear how God’s Spirit brooded over the waters of chaos and in that activity God brought order out of chaos, light out of darkness, giving life to Adam and Eve and creating them from the slime of the earth into His own image and likeness. In the waters of the Baptist’s baptism Jesus harkens us back to God’s creating activity out of the waters of chaos and announces that God is bringing about His new creation.
Our Blessed Lord’s baptism is a revelation of what God is doing, a revelation announcing the beginning of Christ’s redemptive activity in our world. As such, baptism wasn’t so much for Christ as it was for us. It inaugurated the mission of Our Blessed Lord to us and for us. It is the manifestation of the arrival of the One the Jewish people had longed for, the arrival of the Messiah.
For us as Christians the baptism of Christ Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan manifests the Holy Trinity. All three were revealed to us in Jesus’ baptism — the voice of the Father making His announcement, the submission of the Son to His Father’s will, and the consecration of Christ by the Holy Spirit. It was the revelation of Jesus’ consecration by the Holy Spirit for the establishment of His mission amongst us.
To be sure, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of our world, and He would be baptized in His bloody death on the Cross. But in that moment of His total immersion in the consequences of our sins, death, water and blood would flow out of His pierced side, the water and blood that would constitute the Sacraments of the Church. Raised from the dead by the Holy Spirit, we who are members of Christ’s risen and glorified Body now receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus was born, lived among us, and died on His Cross for us so that we could be given God’s holy and life-giving Spirit.
In bringing all these things to mind I am not simply sharing some interesting history with you. What I am sharing with you here in these thoughts are present realities in your life and in mine because of our baptisms into Christ. All of these things didn’t happen in the past, they are happening right now in your life and in mine.
The beginning point of all theology is that God offers and then waits for our response. We can reflect on all of the glorious things God has done for us, and we should. What is crucial is that we hold before our eyes all that we ought to do in response to God’s initiatives. There is a temptation on our part to think that God’s gift salvation to us is automatic, that all we have to do is believe and we will be saved. While it is true that God’s activity is necessary, it is at the same time incomplete unless and until we act in response. The simple truth is that a gift is not a gift unless we receive it. Love isn’t effective unless we accept it — and then act on it. Salvation is ours only if we receive it by acting on it.
Christ was baptized – immersed – into our human life so that we would be baptized – immersed – into His divine life. The Holy Spirit that abided in Him now, because of our Baptism, abides in us. When you stop and think about it that’s quite astonishing. Furthermore, when we were baptized we were baptized into Christ and thereby immersed in His Holy Spirit. We are joined into Christ’s mission in order that we might realize it, to make it real in all that we think, say, and do. This means that we don’t establish God’s kingdom here on earth, He has already done that. It is in the living-out of God’s gift that we receive it.
To be sure we must first believe, that we must first have faith in God and in His love for us. But then we must act. We don’t act and then come to believe; we believe and then come to act on our belief. Our actions come forth from our love; our love does not result from our actions. Our actions speak of our love and reveal it.
Acting on our faith and doing the will of God means that we must overcome our self-concerns and care for those who suffer, for those less fortunate than we are, the outcasts, the sick, and the poor. It means that, like God, we are ready to forgive, to bring peace into our family conflicts and to reconcile ourselves with those whom we have hurt. Acting on our faith means that we build up those who feel they aren’t capable, those who feel they are without talents or abilities. It means that we bring courage to the dispirited. Acting on our baptismal faith we go about the task of revealing the presence of God and the light of His love to those who suffer from hate and discrimination. Acting on our baptismal faith impels us to bring a vision of meaning and purpose to those who live in the misery of life without purpose or meaning. It means respecting the dignity of all living persons no matter in what condition they may be.
Acting on our baptismal faith means that we honor God, respect His Church, and give God the worship that is due to Him. Prayer and worship are essential to our baptismal response to God’s offering of Himself to us. The baptism of Christ was out in public — it wasn’t in private. Christian living isn’t private and hidden. It is public. In the third chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we hear these words:
In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea (and) saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: “A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'” John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
It was in this context that Jesus was baptized by John and so began His public ministry. In Christ, God offers Himself to us. The question to be answered now is “How will we respond?” The answer will be found in your life and in mine, in your lived-out baptismal faith and in mine.