Today’s Feast marks the conclusion of the Christmas Season and the beginning of Ordinary Time. It is a feast of transition from Jesus’ hidden life to that of His public ministry. It also echoes the theme of the Epiphany in that the Baptism of the Lord is another manifestation announcing Jesus’ divinity to all of His first followers and to the world.
The baptism of Jesus was an important event in the ministry of Jesus. It was so important that it is one of the events recorded in all 4 gospels. Matthew’s account gives us the most information about what happened. Being in Year C of the Church’s liturgy, we are offered, today, the account from Luke’s gospel. Here, the account of Jesus’ baptism only spans two verses, but for such a small amount of text, it raises a big question.
- WHY DID JESUS NEED TO BE BAPTIZED?
John preached that people needed to repent of their sins, and he baptized them as a symbol of that repentance4, 6-7. If Jesus was a sinless individual (which he was), then why did he come to be baptized? John the Baptist posed the same question to Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew, we see a parallel account of this same story. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him” (Matthew 3:13-16). We know that when John protested Jesus told him that he needed to be baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.” That was good enough for John. Yet, it still leaves some confusion in the air.
In order to attempt an appropriate answer, it is worthwhile that we talk about some reasons that scholars have postulated for the necessity of Jesus’ baptism:
- a) Some have said that Jesus needed to be baptized because up until this point he was just a man, but at his baptism the Holy Spirit came into him and he became God. That is nonsense. Jesus has always been God, and even when He became a man He was still God from the moment he was conceived. Receiving baptism was not something he had to do in order to complete his “god-ness”.
- b) Some scholars point to this passage as the reason why we should be baptized. Jesus did it, they reason, so we should too. Certainly, this is not the whole story! Christian baptism is not the same as John’s baptism. Later on, after the Church had been established, those who had received John’s baptism were re-baptized with a Christian baptism (cf. the story of Apollos in Acts 18). So, while in some sense, Jesus wassetting an example for us, there’s more to it than just that. So, what was the point of Jesus’ baptism?
- JESUS WAS IDENTIFYING HIMSELF WITH HUMAN KIND
By submitting to a baptism for repentance from sin Jesus was identifying himself with us. Consider how humbling this must have been for the Son of Man. He was the perfect Son of God, yet he willingly underwent the baptism of repentance even though He had nothing of which to repent. He did it out of obedience to the Father and out of love for us. Jesus was showing that he had become like us in order to save us. This is further echoing of the epiphany of Jesus.
Because of this step of Jesus towards us, we must not be afraid to “get dirty”. (Pope Francis exhorts: Priests should not be afraid to smell like the sheep they are shepherds to!) Jesus came to the earth to identify with us—to put himself in our situation so that he could help us out. Let us look at the people we encounter each week. Is there someone who we can help? Maybe there’s someone we may have even thought to ourselves, “I wish somebody would help them.” You are somebody! You can help!
- JESUS AFFIRMS THE PERSON AND THE WORK OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
By accepting the baptism of John, Jesus affirmed all that John had said and done and affirmed his sacred role of preparing the way for Him and for a new era of grace. Jesus was helping to fulfill the prophecy about Elijah from the book of Malachi that John the Baptist was the one who would prepare the way for the Lord. Therefore, the Baptism of Jesus acts as a bridge between the Old Testament prophets (of which John was the last) and the New Testament era of grace and truth.
- THE BAPTISM OF JESUS FURTHER MANIFESTS HIS DIVINITY
After he was baptized, Jesus apparently got out of the water and immediately began to pray (says Luke). God the Father opened the heavens and spoke out loud a word of affirmation to him. He said, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” As this was happening, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus. This event is significant for a couple of reasons:
- a) First, it identifies Jesus as the Messiah, the One that God had promised would come to redeem His people. John the Baptist was looking for this specific sign to know that the Messiah had come.
- b) Second, we get a glimpse of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity simply says: there is one God, but He exists (always has and always will) in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We see all three members of the Godhead at once. The Father speaks, declares that Jesus is the Son, and that the Father is pleased with Him. And then we see the Holy Spirit coming down and settling on Jesus like a dove. Whether this means that an actual dove descended from heaven, or (more likely) that the way the Spirit appeared reminded people of a dove, we do not know, but we see the Holy Spirit making His appearance here as well. This passage is one of the clearest examples we see of the absolute and perfect unity of the Trinity. It gives us a glimpse of who God is. No wonder all four of the gospel writers saw this as a significant event—because clearly God did too!
- THE OFFICIAL BEGINNING OF JESUS’ MINISTRY
The baptism of Jesus was a turning point in Jesus’ life. The gospel writers point to this event as the official beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry and an opportunity for God to give evidence that He was the Messiah. What is it that we should learn from this event?
- a) Jesus’ baptism was an act of obedience
Jesus’ baptism was an act of obedience to the Father—and both the Father and the Holy Spirit responded with approval. His ministry is to be carried out in obedience to the Father. We learn that obedience pleases God. As said earlier, Jesus had no practical need for baptism. But he went to John. He knew that God’s will was for him to participate in this baptism. So, he did what God commanded him to do.
This level of obedience was not a new thing for Jesus. As Luke tells us, he was around 30 years old when this event occurred. That means that Jesus had been living for 30 years in absolute obedience to his Father! Luke chapter 2 gives us the only information that we have about that 30-year period—the time between his birth and the beginning of his ministry. When he was twelve, his parents lost him on a visit to Jerusalem. When they realized that Jesus was not with them, they went back to look for him. They found him in the temple, sitting with the teachers of the law and asking them questions. When his parents complained that they were very worried, Jesus replied, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Of course, he was doing God’s will by studying God’s Word.
Immediately after this account, Luke basically sums up Jesus’ life until the time of his baptism, thus: “Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to [his parents]. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” (Luke 2:51-52)
Jesus’ life was marked by obedience, both to his parents and to God. The result was that as he grew up he also grew wiser. Here, we learn something very important: living in obedience is a discipline we must develop. It is not something you just begin doing one day. Learning any art requires time, perseverance and consistency. Discipline needs lots of practice. Jesus began living obediently long before He ever stood before John. We also need to develop that kind of obedience in the decisions we make every day, and not by making excuses for not doing what God wants.
Practically speaking, we start developing a pattern of obedience for our lives when:
- We choose to tell the truth rather than twist it for our purposes.
- When we choose to do our best even when we can get by with doing less.
- When we choose to live more simply so we will have more to give to others.
- When we choose to stand up and defend our Catholic faith in the face of modern challenges, etc.
We will not, and we cannot, serve God greatly in the big things until we serve Him faithfully in the little things.
- b) His baptism gives us access to God
Jesus’ baptism is like the first pieces in a bridge that would only be completed at the cross, and his rising from the dead. The bridge Jesus was building is designed to give us a way to have a new and restored relationship with God. This bridge provides a way for sinful people to be forgiven, for broken people to be restored, and for lost people to found. The attitude that Jesus shows at his baptism gives us a glimpse of the attitude he would have throughout his earthly ministry. It also reflects the attitude that we should have. Look at what St. Paul says in Philippians chapter 2: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).
Paul points out that there was great humility in Jesus’ coming to earth. He didn’t have to come. But he came to spend his time among sinful people, people who opposed God at nearly every opportunity. Jesus took on a human body. As a result, he experienced hunger, thirst, sickness, and pain. As a child, he submitted to his parents even though he was God. Jesus didn’t demand the respect he deserved, instead he let it go and became like us. He also allowed those in power to arrest him, beat him, and eventually kill him in one of the cruelest and humiliating forms of capital punishment ever devised. He did all this in order to demonstrate his love for us, and to give us an example of what it means to truly love. His humble actions (and his words) say that anyone who comes to him can be forgiven.
Here, we are called to take advantage of the accessibility of Jesus by availing yourself regularly, humbly, and devoutly to the sacrament of confession. We must honestly look at our lives and see if there are some areas where we have been compromising in the little things. We are invited to start there and then work towards obedience in the little things, and the big things will come more easily.
- BAPTISM IMPLIES INVOLVEMENT
Immediately Jesus was baptized and he stepped out of the water, there was no more rest for him. The heavens opened; a voice declared him the Son of God; the Holy Spirit came down on him; he was chased after by people who wanted his services. Up until this moment, Jesus must have lived a quiet life. This quiet came to an end with his baptism. Baptism actually ‘betrayed him’. It revealed him to the world. From thence, people never left him alone, until his death on the cross.
For any true Christian, baptism implies stepping into the crowd, and getting involved with the problems of the world and one’s own problems. Baptisms entails accepting commitments. It means getting rubbing shoulder with others. A true baptized can NEVER BE UNINVOLVED!! In the 1st Reading, God tells us: “I have called you to serve the cause of right; I have taken you by the hand and formed you; I have appointed you as covenant of the people and light of nations, to open the eyes of the blind…” An atheist once commented about Christians: “If Christians are the light of the world, then somebody has forgotten to turn the switch on.” If we are real Christians, then we cannot be uninvolved. Our light must shine to the full view of others. The world around us is falling apart, but we are lifting no finger to help, under the pretext of not wanting to “interfere” in other people’s affairs. There are Christians in most of the High offices in Cameroon, but the corruption and injustice still prevail! On this feast of our Lord’s Baptism, we are reminded of our baptismal call to be involved fully in the life of our families, our church, our country, our world… in order that we may contribute in making it a better place, by switching on our Christian lights.