The Baptism of Jesus 2016
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 implications in the Baptism of Jesus. This final celebration of the Christmas Season has many meanings and important implications for our salvation. Let us look at two of these.
First, we see the manifestation of the Redeemer in a fully public setting, before Jew and Gentile, and in the fullness of his manhood. The earliest manifestations were private, involving only a few representative people: the shepherds representing God’s chosen people, and the magi representing the rest of the nations.
But here the manifestation is much more public, and it actually marks the beginning of the public mission of our Savior. His baptism in the Jordan by John serves to testify to the true identity of the Savior, the Messiah, by a direct testimony from heaven; by God the Father who declares orally, “You are my beloved Son;” and by God the Holy Spirit who testifies visually by descending upon Jesus in the form of a dove, the symbol of God’s peace since Noah.
In a secondary way, John himself had already testified to the utterly transcendent dignity of Jesus and his infinite power when he declared, “I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Mt. 3:11) Indeed, John testifies further at the baptism by his very hesitancy to carry out the baptism, “It is I who should be baptized by you. (Mt. 3:14) John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, recognizes the transcendent dignity and holiness of Jesus, and so he quite naturally draws back in awe and fear, for no man, including the precursor, can be at ease in the presence of the divine. Later Peter will 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.”
This testimony to Jesus’ divine identity, which even John may not fully grasp as 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, the beloved Son. That is who Jesus really is; this man standing in the waters of the Jordan is truly the Eternal Son of the Father, true God from true God, as we profess in our Creed.
The Dove is, to be sure, the sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence, and it recalls the original destructive flood from which man is rescued by God, where the dove appears as the sign of the new peace between God and sinful mankind, indeed, 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.
This water and the dove bring us to the second great implication of the baptism of Jesus. Beyond this event being a manifestation or testimony regarding the identity of Jesus as Son of God, it also points to His mission as the Word made Flesh.
Why is Jesus being baptized, why this particular manifestation or epiphany testifying to His Person and mission? That flood in Genesis and the consequent covenant God establishes with man not to destroy the world by water, along with the dove and the rainbow have to be seen a s the backdrop for the deeper meaning of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. God had used the flood to destroy life and had sent the dove and the rainbow to confirm his mercy and covenant never to do this again: “never again shall all creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood; there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth … I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (Gen. 9:11,13).
All the Fathers agree that the water obviously did not sanctify Jesus; rather Jesus sanctified the water. This was the beginning of the new creation, where water instead of destroying the human race would be used by Jesus and His Church to purify and give a whole new life to the human race. In the beginning, we are told in Genesis, “and the Spirit of God (a great wind) was hovering over the waters. (Gen. 1:1) The Spirit is gradually understood by the Church to be the life giving principle of creation, but also the life giving principle of salvation, the eternal life communicated to mankind. God has chosen an element of creation and transforms it by the Spirit in Baptism into a source of grace and Eternal Life.
John’s baptism, on the other hand, was merely a spiritual bathing with water alone, a mere symbol of man’s desire for an interior cleansing from sin and a new life. Bur 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. Baptism will not only radically cleanse the soul of all sin, but will cause a new life in the soul, transforming the sinner into a true child of God. This is surely why we celebrate this particular feast within the Christmas Season which celebrates the birth of the Savior. His Baptism causes our own rebirth through the sacramental power of the Holy Spirit.
To summarize, then, the power of the Sacrament of Baptism that Jesus initiates here by sanctifying the water 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, as instituted by her Divine 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 whole point of John’s earlier words that Jesus will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” The Spirit is surely the fount of all 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 and elevated soul capable of receiving a whole new life, a share in the very Life of God, utterly supernatural, utterly divine.
One last thought about this event in the Jordan. This concluding epiphany of Jesus, which identifies his person and mission, is such a contradiction to the great manifestations of earthly powers throughout human history. Emperors and Kings manifested their greatness with the greatest pomp and self-glorification. Jesus comes in humility and hiddenness, associating himself in his birth and baptism with the lowly and the despised, with sinners in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. And thus does he marvelously fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah: he shall bring forth justice to the nations.
But he will not accomplish his mission by power and self-glorification; as the prophet foretells, He will do so: 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 God’s justice by the exercise of power, the way earthly powers do, but by being a “light to the nations.” He will conquer only 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 all man’s preposterous and monstrous pride. The Lord continues his mission of salvation in just this same way through the ages, by the preaching of the Truth, by the ministering of the Sacraments of salvation, by the blood of martyrs and self-abnegation of the whole Church. We are all a part of this great 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!