Updated: Feb 14, 2022
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, which marks the end of the Christmas season. Our gospel passage from Luke today is brief, but remarkably rich in meaning.
To better appreciate the significance of John’s baptism, it helps to understand the biblical view of water on the grand scale. When the ancients looked up into the sky, they saw that it was blue like the ocean. And so, many peoples, not only the Israelites, believed that the state of the world was once completely all water.
As an example, the Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus, believed water to be the principle of all things. Thales is held by many to be the first of the great Greek philosophers, and the first historical person to have engaged with scientific philosophy.
With regard to the people of God, the Book of Genesis describes the original cosmos as one enormous body of water. It was God’s Word that both created and separated the waters in the beginning. And God maintained that separation by establishing a firmament to separate the waters above from the waters below.
Now, if God’s Word separated the waters, then a rejection of that Word brought about the reunification of the waters, and likewise death. As an example of this, remember the story of Noah and the arc. When all of mankind rebelled against God through sin, the floodgates of heaven were opened, the ancient fountains burst forth, and all living creatures on the face of the earth perished, save those in the arc.
This theme of death by water is a recurring one in the Old Testament. We heard of it again at the Red Sea during the great Exodus from Egypt. God Word opened up a dry path in the midst of the Red Sea, so that the Israelites could pass through unharmed. But when the Egyptians, who rejected God and his people, tried to pass through, as well, the walls of water on each side collapsed on them, and they were destroyed.
This leitmotif is seen even in the New Testament. When a boat filled with disciples was tossed about on the stormy sea and water pressed in on every side, it was a microcosm of mankind’s vulnerability and situation in the world. Man is tossed about on the stormy sea with water oppressing from above and below, hearkening to the chaos brought about by sin. Rightfully, they were all terrified for their lives.
At the time, the Lord had been asleep in the hold. But when the Lord awakens, he calms the sea with a word. That’s the power of God’s word: it brings order and is life-giving. Rebellion against that word brings chaos and death; very specifically, death through the deluge of water.
John’s baptism was a baptism of water. Symbolically, it was an immersion into death, which is the rightful punishment for sinners. That’s why persons allowed themselves to be submerged into the waters by John. They were acknowledging that they were sinners, and they acknowledged that they deserved to bear the consequence for their sins. This was part of their act of repentance and their recognition that they need the Savior.
Notice who didn't receive the baptism of John. The scribes and Pharisees never admitted to sin; and so, they didn’t receive the baptism of John. But ironically, Jesus did come forward to be baptized by John.
In Matthew’s account—today’s account from Luke doesn’t mention it—John the Baptist protested when Jesus came forward, saying, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?”
John was saying that he himself was a sinner who needed to be forgiven by Jesus, and Jesus is without sin. John knew that. And so, he was confused as to why Jesus would approach him for baptism.
But this is why the baptism of Jesus is so beautiful. Even though Jesus is completely without sin, he nevertheless allows himself to be identified with sin in solidarity with all of mankind; because that’s where mankind is at—it’s drowning in sin. And our Lord doesn't abandon us in our sin. He jumps right in (but without sinning himself).
This is yet another moment in the trajectory of Jesus which began at his conception and continues until he is submerged into death itself for our salvation. This is how God chose to redeem us [gesturing to the Crucifix]; the Holy One without sin plummets into our fallenness and into the punishment merited by sin.
Saint Paul describes it so beautifully in his letter to the Philippians: Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a Cross.
[Again gesturing to the Crucifix] This is how far our God goes to unite himself to our entire human condition. And once he is immersed fully into our humanity by death, that human nature forever becomes fused to his divinity. And because he himself is without sin, and the righteous one cannot decay, final justice demands that he rise form the dead. And consequently, our humanity rises alongside divinity.
This is played out symbolically at the Jordan. By entering into the waters, Jesus wasn’t stained by that immersion. Rather, his presence purified the waters, and his resurfacing hinted at the glorification of humanity in the Resurrection.
And to crown the event, it was there, where Jesus stood in solidarity with the human race, that God’s innermost identity as the Holy Trinity was revealed publicly for the first time: the Father’s voice was heard, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” as the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.
(Incidentally, Mary was the first person to whom God revealed his identity privately; the Archangel Gabriel had said to her: You have found favor with God [a reference to the Father], you will conceive and bear forth a Son, because the Holy Spirit will descend upon you)
As we continue this Mass and our day, let’s reflect upon this message we’re given. Our God identifies with us fully, and has gone to great lengths to redeem each of us. When we in humility also acknowledge our sins and our need for the Savior, God reveals his innermost identity to us, and affirms our identity in him. This Mass is an example: we begin Mass by confessing our sins, and later in the Mass, we behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And our dignity as God’s sons and daughters is confirmed.