Why was Jesus Baptized?
by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted be permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
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/" Jesus said to him in reply, "Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he allowed him. 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."
Why was Jesus baptized? Christians have asked this question for centuries. Sinless, He had no need to repent and therefore no need of John’s baptism “for repentance.” Likewise He has no need of Christian baptism. As the Holy One of Israel, He has no sins to be washed away. As the eternal Son, the waters of rebirth are superfluous to Him. Even John the Baptist wonders at Jesus’ approach for baptism. Trying to prevent Him John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” (Mt 3:14) Why then was He baptized?
To make sense of His baptism, we need to situate it within the overall unity of Our Lord’s life. He more than anyone possessed unity of life. The various events, actions and words of His life were not isolated and unconnected but united and coordinated. Specifically, they all find unity in His self-emptying for our salvation, descending to the depths in order to redeem us. His entire life is a downward trajectory, God descending in the person of Christ to raise man from his misery.
With this descent in mind, we can come to some understanding of His baptism by considering first its relation to His birth. This feast falls close to Christmas, to end the season. Our Lord’s birth and baptism were years apart, of course. But liturgically they are brought together, as bookends of Christmas, because they share a common purpose. And that commonality sheds light on the events at the Jordan. As Fulton Sheen puts it, “The object of His baptism was the same as the object of His birth, to identify with sinful humanity.” In Bethlehem we encounter Him born as one of us. At the Jordan we encounter Him freely choosing to be identified with us sinners.
We understand His baptism also in light of what lay ahead: His Passion and death. In response to John the Baptist’s resistance Jesus says, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). This “righteousness” is that right relationship between God and man that the Redeemer brings. We are restored to righteousness not by our own knowledge, not by our own efforts, not even by John’s baptism for repentance, but by Jesus’ coming into the world and taking all sin upon Himself — by His submission to John in baptism. Our Lord’s descent into the water expresses His assumption of our guilt and anticipates His death, burial and descent into hell (the lowest point of the downward trajectory). The waters of the Jordan that covered Him have been described as a “liquid tomb,” thus indicating the unity of His baptism and His Passion.
So Jesus’ baptism is of a piece in the downward trend of the Incarnation. He descends to earth at His birth, and He keeps descending. From humble origins in Bethlehem, to ignominious exile in Egypt; from subordination to Joseph and Mary in Nazareth, to submission to John at the Jordan; from association “with tax collectors and sinners,” to rejection by His own people; from crucifixion with common criminals to burial in a stranger’s tomb — His life is (to use J.R.R. Tolkien’s line) one long defeat that ends in victory. One long descent that ends in ascension.
His baptism prompts us to think of our own. Just as His was not an isolated event but set the trajectory of His public life, so also ours must bring unity and purpose to our entire life. Baptism is not only the beginning of Christian life but also the pattern of it. Yes, we believe in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” But that does not mean that we leave our baptism in the baptistery, any more than Our Lord left His at the Jordan. Our dying and rising is constant and continual. Each day we die — to our selfish desires, to our pride, to the world’s temptations — so that we can rise in being united with Him. Only if we are willing to descend into the waters with Him — not once but daily — will we be able to rise from them with Him as well.
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