Many theological reasons for Jesus’ baptism have been proposed, explaining it as a sacramental model for the church, an act of solidarity with sinful humanity or “a manifestation of his self-emptying” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1224), but any answer must stress that “the baptism of Jesus is on his part the acceptance and inauguration of his mission as God’s suffering Servant. He allows himself to be numbered among sinners” (No. 536). After Jesus’ baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Because Jesus aligns himself with sinful humanity, the act immediately following his baptism is to do battle with evil, as each of us must do daily.
Jesus, who takes on all of our humanity, did not travel from baptism straight to the glory of the transfiguration but went from baptism to the wilderness, because it is a place that haunts our fragile humanity no matter where we are, and it demands redemption. Jesus’ redemption of humanity begins with the incarnation, but we see it advance in his obedience (unlike Adam and Eve) to the will of God and in his steadfastness to resist temptation.
The model Jesus presents to us when “he was in the wilderness 40 days, tempted by Satan” is one grounded in the reality of human life. Life can be hard, life can be unfair, and life can knock you to the ground. A promise to relax in the car on the way to work can deteriorate into curses cast against the first driver to cut you off. A promise not to drink, and all the hard work that accompanied it in rehab, can fall apart in one visit to the bar, resulting in a sense of frustration and ineptitude. A family gathered in joy can be smashed apart with the sudden death of a child, plunging people into suffering and darkness. Sin crouches nearby, to tempt us in our struggles, our losses and our suffering.
Unlike Jesus, our ability to resist temptation is flawed, even with the gift of baptism, but baptism also allows us to seek safety in the church when evil threatens to overcome us and drive us into the wilderness alone. For Jesus comes out of the wilderness proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The church was built for the ongoing battle and for repentance when we fall. Repentance is a sign of why the church was built: for salvation.
Noah’s ark was built to save those who took refuge in it, and God promised that “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” This ark is an ancient Christian image for the church, for as it says in 1 Peter, by it “a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water;” but in a spiritual sense “baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Repentance functions as this “appeal to God for a good conscience.”
Repentance is available to us because Jesus chose to align himself in the battle against evil so fully that after emerging from the wilderness, “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark.” There is a question as to whom these “spirits in prison” represent—whether these spirits are the “fallen angels” or the human dead of the time of Noah—but Jesus’ proclamation to them is built into the church for us: “Repent, and believe in the good news!”
It is Christ—through his battle with evil in the wilderness, his suffering and death and finally his resurrection—who has gained salvation for us. Christ is raised up and at the right hand of God has authority over all powers, human and demonic. We must be encouraged to grasp fearlessly our baptismal mission, for there is no power over which Christ does not rule, and that mission includes repentance when we stumble in our own personal battles.