The Baptism of the Lord
Fr. Joseph Levine; January 10, 2021
Readings: Is 55:1-11; Is 12:2-6; 1 Jn 5:1-9; Mk 1:7-11
The account of Jesus’ baptism is very short and simple but filled with depth and richness of meaning. The mystery of his baptism is actually part of the mystery of the Epiphany, the manifestation to the nations of the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior. Indeed, this is where the mystery of the Epiphany quite literally touches our lives.
First off, we need to know that Jesus did not need to be baptized any more than he needed to become man, or to do any of the things he did. Everything in the life of Jesus is “for us men and for our salvation.”
Nor was the revelation that followed the baptism for Jesus’ sake, but for ours. Even in his sacred humanity Jesus knew, from the first moment of his conception, that he was the very Son of God, sent to give his life for his salvation. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us: When Christ came into the world, he said … ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God.’ (He 10:5,7)
If we wonder what, at the baptism, the human experience was for him it must have been something like a knew actualization or realization of what he already knew and was deeply familiar with.
We might think of a husband or wife, who have a deep love one for another, celebrating their anniversary, and realizing anew, with a freshness that is not always present every day, though it governs their daily life, “She is my wife; how I love her and how she loves me.” Though I would dare say that Jesus’ awareness of his Father never dimmed and didn’t need refreshing the way that our awareness needs continual renewal.
So once again, Jesus baptism is an epiphany not for himself, but for us. His baptism reveals to us who Jesus is and what he does and who we become in him through baptism.
Now, let me recap the simple facts of the event. Jesus entered the water, was submersed, and came out of the water. The heavens were opened. The Holy Spirit descended as a dove. The voice of the Father was heard: You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.
Through his baptism then Jesus is revealed as God made man, the beloved Son of the Father, upon whom the Holy Spirit rests, who opens the gates of heaven that had been closed by the sin of Adam.
The baptism itself is significant. It was a baptism given to sinners. Jesus, by becoming man, the innocent Lamb of God, without sin, took his place among us sinners and submitted to the baptism given to sinners, just as he would submit to a death that was a punishment for sin. The baptism itself signifies a washing, a cleansing that is to take place through death and resurrection. The immersion in the water signifies death; the emersion from the water signifies resurrection. Therefore, submitting himself to the baptism, Jesus commits himself to and announces symbolically the work he is to undertake on our behalf. He commits himself to giving his life on the Cross as a sacrifice of expiation to cleanse us of our sins. He announces that he will thereby give us to share in the new life of the resurrection, the life of grace, sharing in the very life he has as the Son of God from the Father, through which we are prepared to enter into the life of the Father’s house in heaven.
Through his baptism Jesus also sanctifies the waters of baptism for us so that sharing in his baptism we might come to share the reality of his own life, revealed in his baptism. In other words, what is revealed in Jesus’ baptism is the invisible reality of our baptism.
The sacrament of baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ, cleanses us of sin, opens the gates of heaven for us, bestows on us the gift of the Holy Spirit, and through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we are truly made beloved sons of God, sharing in the life and nature of the Son of God.
Let me speak here about two particular, closely related effects of baptism: grace and character.
The waters of baptism stamp our soul with the indelible mark that is called ‘sacramental character’: it is the mark of the Son of God, the mark of belonging to Christ, the mark that sets us aside and consecrates us for Christian worship. In virtue of the baptismal character, we are entitled to take our place, as members of the Church, the Body of Christ, in the assembly of the faithful at the celebration of the Eucharist; in virtue of the baptismal character, we can take our place here as children of the household, not mere guests and spectators. In virtue of the baptismal character, we are able to stand before God and pray and offer spiritual sacrifices as Christians. The baptismal character allows us to pray, in truth, “Our Father, who art in heaven.”
Nevertheless, without the grace of baptism, sanctifying grace, which transforms us within and makes us actually to share the life and nature of God as his children, the character remains empty and dead. Baptismal character gives us the office of a Christian in the world and gives us a place in the Church, the household of God, but it is sanctifying grace that give us the life of a Christian, the life of the children of God.
The infant who is baptized and also the adult who receives the sacrament of baptism with right intention and without placing any obstacle, receive both the grace and the character of the sacrament. Nevertheless, the character is never lost, while the grace of the sacrament can be lost through mortal sin, which is a deliberate violation of the law of God in a serious matter. For the Christian who is living in a state of mortal sin the character remains within him as a sign of hope and a call to repentance, a call to return like the prodigal son to the Father’s house. If, however, that call is not heeded the same character will be a witness against him on the day of judgment.
If our baptism gives us to share in the reality revealed in Jesus’ baptism, then it also requires that our lives be conformed to the symbolism of the baptism itself, that our lives be conformed to the pattern of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Baptism itself sets us out on the right path by putting to death the reign of sin in our soul and giving us to share in the life of grace, the life of Christ. Living as Christians we must continue on that same path.
That means we must continually reject temptation and turn away from sin so as to live in fidelity to the life of grace.
So St. Paul writes: Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace. (Rm 6:12-14)
And: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. (Rm 12:2)
And: If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on the things that are above, not on the things on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the covetousness, which is idolatry … Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience. (Col 3:1-5,12)
And St. John writes: Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever. (1 Jn 2:15-17)
By dying to the world, by dying to sin, by dying to our self-will, so as to live in Christ, we are able to join as priests in Christian worship, giving thanks to God through Christ in all that we do and say (cf. Eph 5:20; Col 3:17). We are built as living stones into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pe 2:5) Then the will of the Lord will be accomplished in us and we will have communion with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ, and in them, we will be in communion one with another. (cf. 1 Jn 1:3; Jn 17:20-21) Then the gates of heaven and of eternal life will be open to us.
The celebration of the Baptism of the Lord brings the Christmas season to a close as it brings the birth of Christ into our very own lives. It will be fitting to close then with the words of Pope St. Leo the Great in a sermon on the birth of Christ.
“Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the powers of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom. Through the sacrament of baptism you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not drive away so great a guest by evil conduct and become again a slave to the devil, for your liberty was bought by the blood of Christ.” (cf. Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. I, pg. 405)