The Baptism of the Lord is depicted in this stained glass window in St. John the Baptist Church, Allentown. File photo
The Baptism of the Lord is depicted in this stained glass window in St. John the Baptist Church, Allentown. File photo
All of us who are familiar with the New Testament know the story of Jesus’ Baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.  It is reported in all four Gospels: Matthew 3:1-17, Mark 1:1-11, Luke 3:21-22 and John 1:30-34, although John’s account is less descriptive.  The details in the Gospels are quite similar. 

John the Baptist was preaching a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3: 3)”; “. . . all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan, . . . were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins (Matthew 3:5-6),” “And, so, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4).” 

You may wonder, “Why was Jesus baptized?”  He has already been “manifested” as the Messiah, the Son of God at the Epiphany, and John tells us “in him is no sin (1 John 3:5).”  He surely did not need John’s “baptism of repentance.”  What does this event mean?

Let’s consider the context and the details.

John the Baptist.  Luke’s Gospel presents the birth of John, son of the priest Zechariah and his barren wife, Elizabeth, as foretold by the angel Gabriel.  That, in itself, communicates something special about the child and his future.  He then describes a visit by Elizabeth’s relative, Mary, a virgin who is also with child.  Mary, too, was visited by the angel Gabriel predicting the birth of a son.  When the two women met, the child in Elizabeth’s womb “leapt for joy.” 

In a physical sense, this “visitation” was the first and only meeting between John and Jesus until the Baptism in the Jordan.  After their births, John and Jesus went in different directions.  Luke writes about John that “the child grew and became strong in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel (Luke 1:80).”  Jesus “returned with Mary and Joseph to Nazareth (Luke 2:39).”   The parallel stories of their conceptions and births, however, are striking and set the stage for a wondrous relationship yet to be.

Mark’s Gospel begins with John as an adult already on the scene preaching in the desert, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy that he was to be the messenger, preparing the way of the Lord.  Matthew gives a similar account.  John is often described as “the last prophet” of the Old Testament whose mission it was to introduce the Messiah and the New Testament.

Luke simply says that “after all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him (Luke 3:21-22), identifying Jesus as God’s son.”  Mark makes a similar report (Mark 1:9-11).  Matthew observes that “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him (Matthew 3:13).”  Jesus’ Baptism was intentional, and a bit of a dialogue between John and Jesus ensued, concluding with the Spirit of God descending upon him after his Baptism and identifying him as God’s “beloved son.”  In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist himself testifies that Jesus “is the Son of God (John 1:34).”

Jesus.  On Christmas, all Catholics and Christians commemorate the day when Jesus Christ — the Messiah foretold by the Old Testament prophets and long anticipated by the people of Israel — was born in Bethlehem.  The actual date of his birth is not historically certain, but most Christians accept December 25 — the date assigned to the event by the Catholic Church in the fourth century AD — for the celebration of the observance of the feast of Christ’s birth.  December 25 then became identified by Christian religions and secular society as Christmas Day.

Christ’s birth is predicted in the writings of the prophet Isaiah: “... therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign, the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14).”  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops comments: “Emmanuel means ‘With us is God.’  Since, for the Christian, the incarnation is the ultimate expression of God’s willingness to ‘be with us,’ it is understandable that this text was interpreted to refer to the birth of Christ,” the event that occurred roughly eight centuries after Isaiah first prophesied. 

In Matthew’s Gospel account of the Christmas story, Isaiah’s prophecy is quoted: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet, ‘behold, a virgin shall be with child and bear a son and they shall name him ‘Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’ (Matthew 1:23).”

Jesus is the Word made Flesh (John 1:14) and, as Catholics profess, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.  Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became Man (Nicene Creed).  Announced to Mary by the Angel Gabriel, born in Bethlehem on Christmas Day, visited there by the Magi, baptized by John in the Jordan River, Jesus is the promised Messiah and the Savior of the World.

The Baptism.  For Catholics and Christians, the term “baptism” calls to mind the Sacrament of Initiation of the same name.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism, we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: "Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word (CCC, 1213).”  

In the Catholic Church, Baptism is administered by the ritual pouring on or immersion in water of the one to be baptized accompanied by the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” at the hands of a deputized Catholic priest, deacon or, in special circumstances, a lay person.  

That is not what happened to Jesus in the Jordan River.  On that occasion, “baptism” meant something different.  First of all, Jesus did not need Baptism.  As God, he was sinless and, therefore, had no need to be forgiven or “freed from sin.”  Likewise, he did not have to be “made” a sharer in the Church’s mission.  He was its author.  So, what was John’s “baptism?”

The Catechism explains: Jesus “begins his public life after having himself baptized by St. John the Baptist in the Jordan. ... Our Lord voluntarily submitted himself to the baptism of St. John, intended for sinners, in order to ‘fulfill all righteousness.’ Jesus' gesture is a manifestation of his self-emptying. The Spirit who had hovered over the waters of the first creation descended then on the Christ as a prelude of the new creation, and the Father revealed Jesus as his ‘beloved Son (CCC 1223-1224).’”

John’s baptism was accompanied by his preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4).”  A similar explanation is found in the other three Gospels.  John was offering his Jewish audience an opportunity to acknowledge their sins and to repent of them.  He was preparing them for the coming of the Messiah: “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 3:2)!”

Since Jesus had no need to repent, we look for another reason for his Baptism by John. When John encountered Jesus at the Jordan, he resisted baptizing him but Jesus responded in Matthew’s account, “Allow it now, for this it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15).”  Jesus’ Baptism had a symbolic motivation.  

When Jesus emerged from the Jordan, God’s voice was heard identifying him as “my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22).”  His Baptism would be the second “manifestation” of his identity as Messiah in the Christmas story, a prelude to the mission and ministry that would follow.

Jesus was baptized by John who had come to “prepare his way” so that Jesus could begin his divine mission to save from their sins those whose humanity he now shared.   The preaching of John and waters of the Jordan gave Jesus that public occasion. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29),” John the Baptist proclaimed.   The Father’s voice was heard, “this is my beloved Son,” “stepping into the place of sinners (Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, “Jesus of Nazareth”).”

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is the end of the Church’s liturgical season of Christmas, but the mysteries of Christ’s life, death and resurrection that constitute our own Baptism in the Church continue to unfold.