A reflection by Monsignor Charles Pope:
Today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a moment to reflect not only on the Lord’s baptism, but also on our own. For in an extended sense, when Christ is baptized, so are we, for we are members of his body. As Christ enters the water, he makes holy the water that will baptize us. He enters the water and we who are members of his Body go with him. And in these waters he acquires gifts to give us, as we shall see below.
Let’s examine this text in three stages:
1. The Fraternity of Baptism – The text says Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”
John is surely puzzled about Jesus requesting baptism. And likely so are we. Why? John’s baptism of repentance presumes the presence of sin. But the scriptures are clear, Jesus had no sin.
- For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15 ).
- You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin (1 John 3:5 ).
So why does Jesus ask for baptism? He will answer this in a moment.
But first let’s consider this dramatic fact: Jesus identifies with sinners, even if he never sinned. As he comes to the riverside he has no ego concerns. He is not embarrassed or ashamed that some might think him a sinner even though he was not. It is a remarkable humiliation he accepts to be found in the company of sinners like us, and even to be seen as one of us. He freely enters the waters and, to any outsider who knew him not, he would simply be numbered among the sinners, which he was not.
Consider how amazing this is. The Scripture says He is not ashamed to call us his Brethren (Heb 2:11). It also says God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).
Jesus ate with sinners to the scandal of many of the religious leaders: -This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!” (Lk 15:2). Jesus was known as a friend of sinners, had pity on the woman caught in adultery, allowed a sinful woman to touch him and anoint his feet. He cast out demons and fought for sinners. He suffered and died for sinners in the way reserved for the worst criminals. He was crucified between two thieves and He was assigned a grave among the wicked (Is 53).
Praise God, Jesus is not ashamed to be found in our presence and to share a brotherhood with us. There is a great shedding of his glory in doing this. Again, Scripture says, [Jesus], 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 (Phil 1:3)
2. The Fulfillment of Baptism – The text says: Jesus said to [John] in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him.
The Fathers of the Church are of varying opinions as exactly what Christ means by fulfilling all righteousness.
- Chromatius links the righteousness to all the sacraments and the salvation they confer: “This is true righteousness, that the Lord and Master should fulfill in himself every sacrament of our salvation. Therefore the Lord did not want to be baptized for his own sake but for ours” (tractate on Matthew 13.2)
- Chrysostom links it to the end and fulfillment of the Old Covenant: He is in effect saying, Since then we have performed all the rest of the commandments, this Baptism alone remains. I have come to do away with the curse that is appointed for the transgression of the Law. So I must therefore fulfill it all and, having delivered you from its condemnation, bringing it to an end. (Homily on Matt 12.1)
- Theodore of Mopsuestia sees Christ to mean that he is perfecting John’s Baptism which was only a symbol of the true Baptism. The Baptism of John…was perfect according to the precept of Law, but it was imperfect in that it did not supply remission of sin but merely made people fit of receiving the perfect one….And Jesus makes this clear saying, ‘For thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ (Fragment 13).
From another perspective, the word “righteousness” refers, biblically, to God’s fidelity to his promises. Thus, is this sense, Jesus would mean that his baptism would be the sign of the fulfillment of God’s righteous promise of salvation. God had promised this and God is faithful to his promises. Jesus’ baptism indicates this. How?
St. Maximus of Turin speaks of the Old Testament prefigurement of baptism at the Red sea and then shows how Christ fulfills it:
I understand the mystery as this. The column of fire went before the sons of Israel through the Red Sea so that they could follow on their brave journey; the column went first through the waters to prepare a path for those who followed……But Christ the Lord does all these things: in the column of fire He went through the sea before the sons of Israel; so now in the column of his body he goes through baptism before the Christian people….At the time of the Exodus the column…made a pathway through the waters; now it strengthens the footsteps of faith in the bath of baptism. (de sancta Epiphania 1.3)
So what God promised in the in the Old Testament by way of prefigurement he now fulfils in Christ. They were delivered from the slavery of Egypt as the column led them through the waters. But more wonderfully, we are delivered from the slavery to sin as the column of Christ’s body leads us through the waters of baptism. God’s righteousness is his fidelity to his promises. Hence Jesus says, in his baptism and all it signifies (his death and resurrection) he has come to fulfill all righteous and he thus fulfills the promises made by God at the Red Sea and throughout the Old Testament.
3. The Four Gifts of Baptism – The Text says, After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.“
Eph 5:30 says we are members of Christ’s body. Thus when Jesus goes into the water we go with him. And in going there he acquires four gifts on our behalf as this text sets them forth. Lets look at the four gifts he acquires on our behalf:
- Access – the heavens are opened . The heavens and paradise had been closed to us after Original Sin. But now, at Jesus’ baptism, the text says the heavens are opened. Jesus acquires this gift for us. So, at our baptism, the heavens open for us and we have access to the Father and to the heavenly places. Scripture says: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, (Romans 5:1) It also says,For through Jesus we have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph 2:17). Hence the heavens are opened also at our own Baptism and we have access to the Father.
- Anointing – the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove – Here too, Jesus acquires the Gift of the Holy Spirit for us. In Baptism we are not just washed of sins, but we also become temples of the Holy Spirit. After baptism there is the anointing with chrism which signifies the presence of the Holy Spirit. For adults this is Confirmation. But even for infants, there is an anointing at baptism to recognize that the Spirit of God dwells in the baptized as in a temple. Scripture says, Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor 3:16)
- Acknowledgment – this is my beloved Son. Jesus receives this acknowledgment from his Father for the faith of those who heard, but also to acquire this gift for us. In our own Baptism we become the children of God. Since we become members of Christ’s body, we now have the status of sons of God. On the day of your Baptism the heavenly Father acknowledged you as his own dear Child. Scripture says:You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal 3:26)
- Approval – I am well pleased . Jesus had always pleased his Father. But now he acquires this gift for you as well. Our own Baptism gives us sanctifying grace. Sanctifying grace is the grace to be holy and pleasing to God. Scripture says, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in his sight. (Eph 1:1-3)
Thus, at his Baptism, Christ acquired these gifts for us so that our own Baptism we could receive them. Consider well the glorious gift of your Baptism. Perhaps you know the exact day. It should be a day as highly celebrated as your birthday. Christ is baptized for our sakes, not his own. All these gifts had always been his. Now, in his baptism he fulfills God’s righteousness by going into the water to get them for you. It’s alright to say, “Hallelujah!”
A thoughtful and even brilliant essay. Monsignor Pope answers the question I have always had about Christ’s baptism: why did he want John to baptize him?