John the Baptist preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins as an anticipation of the messiah. Jesus himself was baptized by John, as were many others. Taking this as historical fact, what are we to make of it?
According to some secular historians, Jesus was a disciple of John before beginning his own independent ministry. Though the Gospels assure us that John regarded Jesus as his superior, they also reflect the potential oddity that Jesus was baptized by John. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism, John initially resists, telling Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ baptism is unmentioned. Jesus simply appears to be in the vicinity when John tells the people: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, though we hear about John and his ministry, Luke does not explicitly indicate that John baptized Jesus; indeed, Luke almost seems to suggest that Herod had imprisoned John prior to Jesus’ baptism.
Why would the sinless one need to undergo a baptism of repentance or undergo a preparation for the coming of the messiah when he is the messiah? Luke gives us answers. Immediately after Jesus’ baptism and confirmation by the Father—”You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased”—Luke provides Jesus’ genealogy, from Joseph all the way back to Adam (3:23-38). Luke locates Jesus in the whole of human history, but now with the possibility for humanity to start anew. Jesus simultaneously both embodies the whole of humanity—in all its pain, sin and brokenness—and facilitates its transformation, making it possible for humanity to be purified by the Holy Spirit. Standing beside sinners, and even taking their place, is central to his mission of love. In this way, he anticipates the cross. It is striking that the next time Jesus mentions baptism he refers to his own crucifixion. “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” (Lk 12:50; see Mk 10:38).
Baptism is a complicated ritual. Water itself points in two different directions. On the one hand, water is a symbol of life. In a Middle Eastern milieu, the presence of water represents an oasis of refreshment, and rains are celebrated as great gifts from God. Bathing in water, especially in a ritual setting, is deeply cleansing. Baptism reflects this: our sins are washed away by this symbol of life. In ancient times, water also symbolized chaos and death. Think of the flood in Noah’s day or the words of the psalmist: “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your torrents./ All your waves and breakers sweep over me” (42:8).
Paul understands baptism as entering into the very Passion of Christ: “We who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (Rom 6:3). Of course, baptism is not death alone, much less death for death’s sake. Rather, it is death that brings forth new life. Back to Paul: “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). Our second reading from Titus reflects the dynamic: “He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”
The baptism of Jesus is a death. Embodying us and our broken condition, the Son of God entered into the watery tomb. We follow our Savior into that same tomb in our own baptism; we recall it every time we bless ourselves with holy water; and we ritualize it when we offer ourselves in the Eucharist to the Father along with the original sacrifice of Christ. It is the Cross; it is death.
Jesus’ baptism gave life-giving water the power to heal and infuse us with the Holy Spirit. We emerge, as did the Lord, confirmed as beloved children of the Father. We who are children of mortal, sinful Adam are now children of God, co-heirs with Jesus our Lord and brother.
Thank God for the baptism of Jesus.