The public ministry of Jesus Christ begins with his Baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, so it is most fitting and significant that the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord brings to a conclusion the Christmas season and ushers in the Ordinary Time of the Church’s liturgical year. Ordinary Time gives us the opportunity to ponder the many activities of the Lord and the different mysteries he reveals in the course of his public life. But it all begins with the profound and mysterious event of his Baptism.
The Baptism of the Lord Jesus stands out as a moment of revelation, an “epiphany” – God manifesting himself so that we may glimpse his plan for the salvation of humanity. In today’s first reading, God declares through the prophet Isaiah what he has in mind for us: “Comfort, give comfort to my people… Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by a strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him.” Comfort, consolation and security, reward and mercy – these are all ways to describe salvation, the spiritual and total wellbeing of every man and woman who has been badly wounded by sin. God is revealing himself and his plan to come and save us. From this perspective of God’s plan of salvation, we can better understand and appreciate the meaning of the Baptism of our Lord.
St. Luke tells us in today’s Gospel that the people were already “filled with expectation,” longing for the coming of the salvation that had been promised. John was making such an impact on the nation with his preaching and his baptizing that the people began to wonder whether he might be the expected Savior, the Christ. Many people were coming to John for baptism, which involved the confessing of their sins in order to get rid of their guilt. But something new and unexpected happens: Jesus joins the sinners; he comes to be baptized as well. Since we know that Jesus was without sin (cf. Heb 4:15), we are puzzled by his decision to receive baptism from John. The reason is this: he comes, not to be freed from sin but to free us from sin.
Pope Benedict XVI gives an incisive explanation: “Looking at the events [i.e., Jesus’ baptism] in the light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public ministry by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross,” through which he saves mankind from sin and gives life to the world (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 18).
St. Luke, who often shows us Jesus in conversation with the Father, tells us in today’s Gospel that Jesus was praying at the beginning of his public life, while he was baptized. At the end of his public life, during his agony on the Cross, again Jesus prayed, offering his life for the remission of sins. Benedict XVI writes further: “The Baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity, and the voice that calls out ‘This is my beloved Son’ over the baptismal waters is an anticipatory reference to the Resurrection. This also explains why, in his own discourses, Jesus uses the word baptism to refer to his death (cf. Mk 10:38; Lk 12:50).”
By starting his public ministry with his Baptism, Jesus reveals both that he has come to save us and that his way of saving us is by taking on the burden of our sins through his death on the Cross. His Baptism opens the way for our Baptism, the Sacrament by which we are freed from sin. Baptism is a participation in Jesus’ death so that we may have the new life he offers. St. Paul explains this in his Letter to the Romans: “We who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rm 6:3-4).
Today we rejoice that we have been saved by Christ through the “bath of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” as St. Paul writes in his Letter to Titus. Paul also teaches us how we should live our lives, as people who have been given new life through Christ. He invites us to “live temperately, justly and devoutly,” knowing that the ultimate reward – the salvation announced by Isaiah and accomplished through the Death and Resurrection of Christ as foreshadowed in his Baptism – will surely come. Since we have been “justified by his grace,” we can live “in hope of eternal life,” the life we first received in Baptism.
Do I take time to reflect upon my Baptism as a participation in the death of Jesus? How can I live in the newness of life offered by Christ? Am I willing to be saved by the Lord?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 15, no. 2. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.