And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
The Baptism of the Lord brings the great celebration of Christmas and Epiphany to their conclusion. The birth of the Savior and his various public manifestations come to their full meaning in the Baptism of Jesus. This final celebration of the Christmas Season has many meanings and important implications for our salvation, and we will look at just a few of them.
First, we see the manifestation of the Redeemer in a public setting, before Jew and Gentile, in the fullness of his manhood. The previous public manifestations were somewhat private, involving only a few representative people, the shepherds, representing God’s chosen people, and the magi, representing the rest of the nations. Here the manifestation is much more public and actually marks the beginning of the public mission of the Savior. His baptism in the Jordan by John serves to point out the true identity of the Savior, the Messiah, with the direct testimony from heaven by God the Father: “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son,'” and by God the holy Spirit who descends upon Him visibly in the form of a dove, the symbol of God’s peace. Likewise, and secondarily, John himself testifies to the utterly transcendent dignity of Jesus and his infinite power; “I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Indeed, John testifies even by his hesitancy to carry out the baptism, as we read in Matthew’s account. John, under the inspiration of the Spirit, recognizes the transcendent holiness of Jesus and declares, “It is I who should be baptized by you.” Here John recognizes, perhaps for the first time, the aura of the divine holiness in Jesus, and he quite naturally draws back in awe and fear, for no man, including holy John can be at ease in the presence of the divine. Recall how Peter reacted in a similar way at the great catch of fish when he recognized the presence of the divine in Jesus: “Lord depart from me for I am a sinful man.”
The testimony to Jesus’ divine identity, which even John may not fully grasp yet, concludes with a marvelous theophany, that is, with a manifestation of the Triune God and Jesus’ place in this Holy Trinity. The dove, the Son of Man and the voice of the Father, all speak of who this man truly is – You are my beloved Son. That is who Jesus is, this man standing in the waters of the Jordan is truly the Eternal Son of the Father who testifies, true God from true God, as we profess in our Creed.
The Dove is, to be sure the sign of the Holy Spirit, and recalls the original destructive flood from which man is rescued by God, and the dove appears as the sign of the new peace between God and sinful mankind, a new life, a starting over for creation. The implications are clear, that what is happening here points to a new life for mankind, a new peace between God and his wayward children.
But the central focus of the theophany is definitely on the person of Jesus, who is not simply identified as the Messiah, with a divine aura, John’s testimony, but as the beloved Son of the One who speaks, and the One over whom the Spirit hovers in a unique way. He is not just a beloved son in some metaphorical sense, as sometimes occurs in the Old Testament, with reference to men like David, but in a totally unique sense, “This is my beloved son” is a kind of parallel with the unique way Jesus will speak of the Father, as my Father, as Abba, as my beloved Father, which is totally unique to Jesus; his disciples will speak of Our Father, but Jesus always speaks of my Father. He is the beloved, the man who allows John to Baptize Him in the Jordan that day.
The second aspect of this event has to do with the mission of the one who is being baptized by John, why he has come and why this is the beginning of a new world. John’s baptism was a spiritual bathing with water alone, a mere symbol of man’s desire for an interior cleansing from sin; but Jesus will baptize with water and the Holy Spirit, that is, with a divine power that will not merely symbolize an interior cleansing but a power that will really and truly cause what it signifies, radically cleansing the soul of all sin and transforming the sinner into a true child of God. This is surely why we celebrate this feast in the Christmas Season which celebrates the birth of the Savior. His Baptism celebrates our rebirth through the sacrament he establishes in the waters of the Jordan.
Thus the power of the baptism that Jesus initiates here by sanctifying the waters of this world is truly a divine power that infinitely surpasses the baptism practiced by John, just as Jesus himself infinitely surpasses the person of John, because he is divine. The baptism practiced by the Church, instituted by her Master, and signified in the Jordan, is a true re-creation, a true cleansing from sin and the beginning of a new, supernatural life.
This seems to be the point of John’s words, “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The Spirit is surely the fount of life, the Spirit who hovered over the waters of creation and brought forth life. But the same Spirit cleanses the soul of man with fire to give man a true new beginning, to give us a new purified soul capable of receiving a new life, a share in the very Life of God, utterly supernatural, utterly divine.
This is the truth about our own Baptism, that it is a rebirth, a new creation, a new life purified of all sin, and all of this meaning is present in seed at the Baptism of Jesus. His Baptism sanctifies water itself, sacramentalizing creation itself, by making the lowly element of water capable of communicating the very power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus became man to make us divine, and it all begins in the waters of Baptism, for the sacrament is made possible by the Baptism of Jesus in the waters of the Jordan.
Finally, this concluding epiphany of Jesus, which identifies his person and mission, is such a contradiction to the great manifestations of earthly powers in human history. Emperors and Kings manifested their greatness with the greatest pomp and self-glorification. Jesus comes in humility and hiddenness, associating himself with the lowly and the despised, with sinners in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Thus he marvelously fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah: he shall bring forth justice to the nations. But he will not accomplish his mission by power and self-glorification, but as the prophet foretells: not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street. a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench. He will not being justice by the exercise of power, the way earthly powers do, but by being a “light to the nations.” He will conquer by truth and self-sacrifice, not by power and the sacrifice of others. He will conquer with humility and gentleness and self-abnegation, all of which seems madness to the worldly, to earthly powers. But this way is the mysterious way of God, and it is destined one day to triumph over all evil, over sin and death and injustice and man’s monstrous pride. The Lord continues his mission of salvation in just this way through the ages, by the preaching of the Truth, by the sacraments of salvation, by the blood of martyrs and self-abnegation of the whole Church. We are all a part of all this fantastic drama of salvation from the day of our Baptism, if we truly accept Him and subordinate ourselves to manifesting Him, and truly accepting and embracing his way of salvation rather than the way of the world. May Jesus Christ be praised, now and Forever, Amen