What does His Baptism Signify?

The Baptism of Jesus 2015

I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

The Baptism of the Lord brings the great celebration of Christmas and Epiphany to their marvelous conclusion. During this brief liturgical journey, we have traveled with the whole Church a great distance in time from the birth of Jesus and his manifestation as an infant to the three magi to the time of His manifestation to the world in his mature manhood at His baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist. By His Baptism Jesus begins His public life and mission as the Redeemer of man, and He is manifested as the Lord before the world by this glorious testimony of the Father and the Holy Spirit in a theophany of the Triune God.

This sacred event has such rich meaning and implications for our salvation, and we will look at just a few of them. First, we see the manifestation of our Redeemer in a very public setting, before both Jew and Gentile, and now in the fullness of his manhood. The whole event points to the unique identity of this chosen one, beginning with John himself first recognizing the utterly transcendent dignity of Jesus and his infinite power. He bears witness to the Lord, based upon the words that he had received from the Holy Spirit, that Jesus is the one who will baptize in the Holy Spirit. Recognizing this great dignity and power of Jesus, John understandably hesitates to baptize the sinless one: “It is I “John says to Jesus, who should be baptized by you.” John recognized for the first time the great aura of the divine in Jesus, and he naturally draws back in fear, for man cannot be at ease in the presence of the divine. Recall how Peter would react 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.”

However, the significance of the Baptism of Jesus does not culminate with John’s witness to the presence of the divine in Jesus, for his testimony might simply be taken to indicate that Jesus is an especially blessed and holy man. No, the scene culminates with a marvelous theophany, that is, the manifestation of Jesus’ unique and utterly transcendent relation to God, the theophany revealing in a symbolic way who Jesus really is. The voice from Heaven is clearly the voice of God the Father, and he testifies that Jesus is His beloved son. Likewise, the dove is clearly a visible manifestation of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who hovered over the waters at the creation and brought forth life. The dove becomes the symbol of the Spirit from the beginning of the Old Testament as seen in the story of the flood, when the dove becomes a sign of God’s life giving mercy which puts an end to the deadly flood and gives a new life to mankind.

However, we can see that the central focus of the theophany is on the person of Jesus, who is not simply identified as the Messiah with a divine aura – John’s testimony – but as truly the beloved Son of the Father who speaks, and the consecrated One over whom the Spirit hovers. He is not to be seen as a beloved son in some metaphorical sense, as sometimes occurs in the Old Testament with reference to men like David, but in a very unique sense. “This is my beloved son” is a kind of parallel description with the unique way Jesus will speak of the Father, as my Father, as Abba, my beloved Father, which is totally unique to Jesus. We know that his disciples speak only of Our Father, while Jesus reserves to Himself speaking to God as my Father.

Moreover, it is extremely significant that the Spirit hovers over Jesus in the water just as the Spirit hovered over the whole of creation in Genesis, thus testifying to the absolutely unique and intimate connection between Jesus and the Spirit. This too points us in the direction of the true identity of Jesus as not simply having a divine aura or quality but having that unique aura precisely because he is the beloved son, a divine person who has entered this world as a man, but who remains true God from true God as we say in our Creed.

The second aspect of this event has to do with the mission of the one who is being baptized by John, that is, the purpose for which he has come and why His coming is the beginning of a new world. To begin with, we are told by John that his baptism was merely a spiritual bathing with water alone, a mere symbol of man’s desire for an interior cleansing from sin. On the other hand, John says that Jesus will baptize with water “and the Holy Spirit,” that is, with a sacred action that will not merely symbolize an interior cleansing but will exercise a divine power that will really and truly cause what it signifies This action, by His power, which is the Holy Spirit, will radically cleanse the soul of all sin and simultaneously will transform the sinner into a true child of God. Thus the power of the baptism that Jesus will institute is a divine power that infinitely surpasses the baptism practiced by John, just as Jesus himself infinitely surpasses the person of John. He is a divine Person. Thus, the baptism practiced by the Church, which was instituted by her Master, is a true re-creation, a true cleansing from sin and the beginning of a new, supernatural life in the human person. This is the whole point of the words regarding baptizing with water and the Spirit. For the same Spirit who once hovered over the waters of creation and brought forth all natural life, including man’s natural life, is now communicated through these waters of Christian baptism in order to give to man a new beginning, to give us a new life which is nothing less than a share in the very Life of God, a Life utterly supernatural, utterly divine.

That is the deepest truth about our own Baptism, and all of this is present in seed and promise at the Baptism of Jesus, in seed because His Baptism sanctifies water itself by communicating to sacramental Baptism the very power of the Holy Spirit. It is present in promise because Jesus is baptized for us, who are already in Jesus by his human nature, and it promises that we to shall be sharers in His divinity just as He became man to share in our humanity and make us one with Him. He has come to elevate us and to make us divine, and it all begins in the waters of Baptism, made supernaturally fertile by the Baptism of Jesus in the waters of the Jordan.

Finally, this dramatic and telling epiphany of Jesus, which identifies his person and mission, has to be seen as 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 all humility and hiddenness, associating himself with the lowly and the despised, with sinners in need of God’s great mercy and forgiveness. In this surprising way does he marvelously fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah: he shall bring forth justice to the nations. For He will not accomplish his mission by power and self-glorification, but rather as Isaiah 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 bring 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 sacrificing of others. He will conquer with humility and gentleness and self-abnegation, all of which seems madness to the worldly and to earthly powers. But this way is shown to be the way of God, and it is in fact destined to triumph over all evil, over sin and death and injustice and man’s monstrous pride.

Today, the Lord continues his mission of salvation in just this same way, just as He has done through the ages, by the preaching of the Truth, by the Sacraments of salvation, by the blood of martyrs, and by the self-abnegation of the whole Church. We are all called to be a part of all this incredible drama of salvation from the day of our baptism, and we will be part of it if only we truly accept Him and subordinate ourselves to manifesting Him, and truly accept and embrace his way of salvation rather than the way of the world. May Jesus Christ be praised, now and forever. Amen


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