In yesterday’s great feast, the Epiphany of the Lord, we reflected on the experience of the Magi, who discovered that the “newborn King of the Jews” was their King as well. They looked beyond the superficial appearances – the obscurity, the poverty, the helplessness of the Child – and saw that a newborn King was indeed in their midst. The extravagant gifts with which the Magi honored Jesus showed that they recognized his royal dignity. They met Mary, the Child’s mother, and naturally assumed that Joseph was his father, and since Joseph was a simple laborer, they understood that Jesus’ kingship was not inherited from his father but somehow came from the direct action of God. They did not know that Jesus was in fact the eternal Son of the Father. That secret was only revealed much later.
On the day Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, the astounding truth of his divine identity was clearly announced for all to hear when the Father himself spoke from heaven, “This is my beloved Son. My favor rests on him.” This announcement at Jesus’ baptism is a great moment of revelation, an “epiphany.” Thus, the Church includes the feast commemorating this event in the Christmas-Epiphany Season, even though Jesus’ baptism took place many years after his birth and the coming of the Magi. If Christmas represents the revelation of the Messiah to the Jews, and Epiphany represents his light shining on the Gentiles as well, the Baptism represents the revelation of the Lord of the universe, now physically present in the midst of his creation.
Today’s liturgy presents the moment of Jesus’ baptism – which is the first Luminous Mystery of the Rosary – as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, in which God proclaims that his anointed servant will be “a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”
The word baptism comes from a Greek word for immersion or washing. Today’s feast gives us an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the profound mystery, not only of Jesus’ baptism but also of our own – the extraordinary gift of the Sacrament of Baptism. Perhaps because it is such a simple ritual, we tend to treat Baptism like a simple social event and too easily take it for granted. To our imperfect eyes, it can seem as if not much happens when a small amount of water is poured over the head of a baby. But in fact, Baptism is no mere symbolic ritual. It is the beginning of a whole new life.
How did mere water, an ordinary physical element, one of the most basic of all substances, become such a powerful instrument, able to wash away our sins and make us holy? The answer lies in the event we celebrate today. Today’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus’ baptism is unique. Since he had no need to repent, he certainly did not need John’s ritual washing. John’s own intuition tells him not to baptize the Lord; he feels that he is the one who should be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around. But when Jesus explains that it is part of God’s will, John obediently accepts, even if he does not understand.
Jesus’ baptism is not for his own sake, but for ours. He enters the water in order to infuse it with a new power, and to give the act of baptism a whole new meaning. Jesus was not made holy by the baptism; the water was made holy – so that we may be made holy. The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the Jordan, not because he was lacking the Spirit, but in order to reveal that the Holy Spirit now comes to dwell in us through the Sacrament of Baptism. Because Christ was baptized, we can become holy. His immersion in creation makes it possible for us to be “immersed” in God, united with him by the power of his Spirit dwelling in us.
When we become Christians, then, we are not simply sprinkled with water. We are filled with the same Spirit that became visible at the Jordan. Though we still live in a troubled world, and though sin still wounds us, leaving us like a bruised reed or a smoldering wick, we are not defeated. We are not “in the grip of the devil,” for God has claimed us for himself. What the Father said of Jesus in the Jordan is what he also says about us: We are his beloved sons and daughters; his favor rests on us. Today, as we dip our fingers in the holy water and make the sign of the cross, we renew our baptismal commitment: we leave sin behind and follow Jesus Christ our Savior. We acknowledge once again that our true identity is in him.
Do I immerse myself in the mystery of Christ’s baptism as well as my own baptism? When faced with a troubled world, do I trust that God has claimed me for himself? Am I willing to leave sin behind and accept my place as a beloved child of God?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 13, no. 2. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.