From the 'Baptism of John' to Yours...
When John the Baptist appears in the Gospels as an adult, we read about him actively responding to God’s call as the herald of salvation preaching the need for repentance and forgiveness of sins, in the tradition of Ezekiel (Ezek 18:31; 36:25–26) as part his mission as the herald of salvation who “prepares the way of the Lord”.
At that time in the history of the Jews, John’s baptism was one of many water rituals that included the daily ritual bathing of monks at Qumran, Jewish ceremonial washing (John 2:6), and the Pharisees’ ritual handwashing (Mark 7:3–5). However, as Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote in his book “Jesus of Nazareth,” the baptismal action of John the Baptist was markedly different from any other religious rituals that had preceded it, insofar as the baptism that he offered did not need to be regularly repeated as did the other water rituals.
Although God desired the people to have a rich and lively interior faith, many rituals had become more focused on exterior form and action and disconnected from the underlying meaning and purpose. Reading Luke 3:7and 3:14, we see by John the Baptists question that it is not enough simply to perform external rites, not even his baptism: one’s heart needs to be converted if one is to produce fruit of repentance pleasing to God.
Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, notes that John the Baptist baptized individuals to mark the ritual completion of their journey toward conversion. Unlike sacramental baptism creating purity by forgiving sin, John’s baptism commemorated the purity achieved when individuals turned away from sin in anticipation of the coming of God’s reign. His was an invitation to a deep spiritual renewal that anticipated the baptism of the Spirit that would be brought by Christ (Mark 1:8) as he proclaimed that the one who would follow him would baptize not only with water but with fire and the Spirit. (Matt 3:11; Luke 3:16; John 1:27)
Baptism of Jesus
In Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, He is anointed by the Holy Spirit, God the Father proclaims His fundamental identity as the beloved Son, and we perceive Jesus’ mission as one of humble self-emptying love and sacrificial identification with everything in us that was lost, broken and dead. Pope Benedict sees in Jesus’ baptism an expression of His fundamental submission to the will of the Father and His complete identification with sinners. By submersion in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus is publicly seen as one in need of repentance and forgiveness himself, although He has no need of it. Jesus is already embracing the enormous weight of humanity’s sinfulness, just as He will do again in a definitive and final way on the cross.
Pope Benedict notes that the icons of the Eastern Church visualize this intrinsic connection between the baptism of the Lord and the Paschal Mystery by depicting the waters of the Jordan “as a liquid tomb having the form of a dark cavern, which is in turn the iconographic sign of Hades, the underworld, or hell.” Just as the Lord descends into the swirling waters of death at His baptism, He goes down to the netherworld after His crucifixion to rescue the souls of lost humanity.
Narrated in each of the four Gospels, the baptism of Jesus marks the inauguration of His public ministry. Jesus steps into the Jordan River and into His mission of redemption through this public religious act. The descent of the dove symbolizes the anointing of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus receives as the Christ – the Anointed One. Luke’s version of the Baptism of the Lord, puts the focus on the public proclamation of Jesus as the Son of God, working under God’s Spirit (Luke 3:21–22, 38; 4:1, 14, 18). Already at the beginning of His ministry, Jesus’ fundamental identity is situated in this Trinitarian relationship. In the early Church, the visit of the Magi, the baptism of the Lord and the miracle at Cana together constituted the meaning of Epiphany, for each of these three events reveals, manifests and unveils who Jesus is.
The Church Fathers interpreted the Gospel narrative in several complementary ways. Some saw him as the representative of all humanity (in his baptism, human flesh is sanctified); others looked to his baptism as the pattern for human sanctification (he demonstrates so that humans will imitate). Still other Church Fathers held that Christ’s descent into the waters purified the waters of the earth and made them holy for use in Christian baptism. The early Church often spoke of Christ’s Passion and death as the source of baptism’s cleansing power: Christians were said to be “washed … in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14).
At his baptism, that Spirit came down on Jesus. It was not for him alone but so that he might bring “true justice” to all. A just society is one where everyone has what they need to have, where their dignity is respected and affirmed and where people live in right relationships with each other. Jesus’ work is above all to liberate us and set us free. For all of this, Jesus was baptized and commissioned by his Father.
Jesus, in his own ministry, spoke of baptism as a formal rite “of water and the Spirit,” (John 3:5), performed in the name of the Trinity (Matt 28:19), and required for salvation (Mark 16:16). At the end of his earthly ministry Christ gave this commandment to the disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19–20; Mark 16:15–16). As soon as they had received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the apostles began to do ask He asked and on that first day, they baptized about three thousand people (Acts 2:38–41). As Saint Peter declared, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). From then on, every new believer was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Baptism washes away our original sin and claims us for the kingdom of God. Through this saving sacrament, God fills us with sanctifying grace, with the fullness of the Trinitarian life. Saint Paul often spoke of the close communion between the life of the baptized and the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3–4; cf. Col 2:12). Baptized into Christ, the Christian receives the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5), is washed in water and the word (Eph 5:26), is granted adoption and sonship, and receives the power to call upon God the Father. (Rom 8:15, 17; Gal 3:16, 4:4–7). The baptized become coheirs with the Son of God. (1 Cor 6:15, 12:27; Rom 8:17) Through baptism we “put on Christ” (Gal 3:27); and through the Holy Spirit baptism becomes the ordinary means of purification, sanctification, and justification. (1 Cor 6:11; 12:13) Baptism also brings incorporation into the body of Christ: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” (1 Cor 12:13) and “we are members one of another” (Eph 4:25). Baptism means membership in “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” (1 Pet 2:9) (CCC 1265–70) To understand the meaning and implications of our baptism is to fundamentally grasp our identity, vocation and mission as disciples of the Lord Jesus and members of the household of God.
Reflecting on our baptism
The fruit of Christ’s victory over the power of sin and death is the divine invitation for us to share in the very life of the Trinity. Jesus Christ freely shares His very nature with us through the transforming waters of baptism.
Today is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on our baptism. It is not something which happened a long time ago and which “made” us Catholics. It is not just a ceremony lasting a few minutes which produces magical effects; it is the beginning of a lifelong journey. It is the beginning of a process of growing into the Body of Christ as its members.
Our baptism is essentially a community experience; it is not just a private or a family event although in the way it was “celebrated” it may have looked like that. It involves active participation in the life of the Church and not just passive membership. Each one of us is called to be a living witness to the Gospel: to be the salt of the earth, a city on a hill, a lamp radiating light for all. Our baptism is a never-ending call to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
 Hahn, S., ed. (2009). In Catholic Bible Dictionary (p. 93). Doubleday.
Fr. Blair Gaynes has been in the Diocese since 2008.