John is surprised when Jesus arrives from Galilee to be baptized in the Jordan. John says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus responds saying: “Allow it for now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Today’s celebration of the Baptism of the Lord concludes the Church’s liturgical season of Christmas. We have been reflecting and remembering the incarnation and nativity of the Lord. The immense love that God has for humanity is celebrated as he takes on human flesh and is born of Mary. The humility of the Son of God seen so vividly in His becoming one of us is once again manifest in the encounter with John at the Jordan.
John says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you.” Earlier in the Gospel, and as we have heard anew during Advent, John proclaimed: “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)
Now Jesus submits himself for baptism to John in humility “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” In the encounter with John before the baptism we see that Jesus’ humility is bound together with profound obedience to his Father.
Jesus uses the term “fulfillment of all righteousness.” The term refers to the plan the Father has for all humanity. Jesus, the Messiah, submits himself to the baptism by John and represents all humanity. Though Jesus is without sin and thus in no need of repentance, he submits himself to the baptism of repentance on behalf of all humanity. Jesus “fulfills” all righteousness in that he responds obediently to the Father’s plan as it unfolds.
The submission of Jesus to the baptism, in other words the obedient response to the Father’s will, is affirmed by the Father as Jesus comes up from the water. St. Matthew tells us: “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.”
These words echo those of Isaiah 42, the first reading for Sunday’s liturgy. The reference opens a door to understanding the significance of Jesus and his mission. The “chosen one with whom I am pleased” is the one who will “bring forth justice to the nations.” He will “open the eyes of the blind,” “bring prisoners from confinement and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness,” and he will be the “covenant of the people.” He is the one who will make all things “right” before God.
The passage also gives insight to the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Lord says: “I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice, I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you and set you as a covenant of the people.” The Father has a plan for humanity that will be fulfilled by his “chosen one,” the “servant whom I uphold;” and the Son fulfills that plan in humble obedience.
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord also reminds us of our baptism. Our baptism is a participation in the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord. Through baptism we are united with Christ as his brothers and sisters. Through baptism we join our lives with his. We participate in the salvation he won for us. We recognize that Jesus is the one who has justified us, through mercy, before his Father. We recognize that Jesus is the one who has opened our eyes to see the love that the Father has for us. We recognize that he has brought us forth from the prison of sin and death and filled us with freedom and life.
Jesus fulfills the plan of the Father for the salvation of the world. In Jesus we find the “righteousness” and “justice” of the Father. Through him we are reconciled to the Father and with him we have life.
As we now move forward from Christmas to Ordinary Time we are reminded that the fullness of life comes through loving, humble obedience to the Father. United with Christ and enlivened by him we renew our commitment to follow the Lord and to walk in his ways.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.