So a couple from town that we are good friends with had a baby last week, and Doan and I had spent a bunch of time beforehand helping to get their house ready for the baby, mostly some painting, which I really enjoy doing. At one point, on that Friday, I realized that I hadn’t written my sermon and told the expectant father that they better have this baby soon so perhaps I would have something to talk about for the weekend. Well, the baby held out too long, but in God’s sense of humor, during the week before the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, I’ve heard at least one person ask, despite the baby being barely two days old, when he will be baptized. Not only that, but I’ve heard from three other families looking for baptisms in the coming months. It seems that there is something very powerful about baptism, a pull towards it that won’t let up, a profound need for it.
Baptism is so important that even Jesus got Himself baptized, despite the fact that Jesus didn’t actually need to get baptized. I was always a little confused about all that, and I thankfully discovered that I wasn’t alone in that confusion.
Why was Jesus baptized? Even for the early church, as the canon of scripture itself was being formed, it seems to have been a controversial question. If Jesus goes before John for the “baptism of repentance,” it seems that Jesus himself is a sinner. The account from the Gospel of Matthew suggests as much when giving voice to John’s reluctance: “It is I who need baptism from you, and yet you come to me!” Mark’s Gospel begins with John’s proclamation, “for the forgiveness of sins,” and the promise that “someone greater than I is to come.” The next moment, we see the “someone,” whose sandal straps John is not worthy to untie, receiving the sign of repentance from John, not giving it.
“It is not only a special irony. It is a central image of the redemptive mystery. Jesus enters into radical solidarity with all men and women, taking upon himself even the condition of our sinfulness, himself having not sinned. The “one more powerful” assumes the position of weakness. It is precisely in this that he is beloved. And it is from this baptism sign that he is sent.
“(Jesus) was like us in all things but sin, the author of Hebrews reminds us when discussing Jesus’ high priesthood. And yet we balk at the statement. “If he did not sin, how could he really be like us? How could he be fully human?””1
I think that question stems from our understanding of what it means to be human as opposed to God’s understanding of the same. We have only experienced being human in the context of our fallenness; we understand sin as being innately human because sin is innate in us. But Jesus, conceived by the Holy Ghost, His flesh taken from a spotless mother, was without sin from the beginning, and so just like Adam, Jesus was human the way God first conceived of us. Vulnerable, yes, temptable; Jesus was tempted in every way we are and yet did not fall, as so He not only shared in our humanity, but fulfilled our humanity.
His baptism, then, was not an acknowledgement of something hidden or an elaborate ruse, but rather a way for Jesus to be with us in everything, to experience all that we do.
I think the profound pull towards baptism is found there: that in submitting to the waters of baptism, in being cleansed of the stain of sin, in rising to the new life found in the Church, we get to do what God did. We get to not only be in relationship with the Son of the living God but to also follow in His footsteps, like little brothers and sisters padding along behind the best older brother ever.
As the community of the baptized, we share in the life story of God. We get to walk in His paths, to be in His presence, to be part of His family, and we get to invite others to do the same. And so in the sometimes rather confusing story of the baptism of our Lord, at the center of it is, as always, the grace, humility, and love of Christ.
1John Kavanaugh, SJ. http://liturgy.slu.edu/BapLordC011016/theword_embodied.html