“You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”
Why was Jesus baptized? It’s a simple question that many people ask. The thought basically goes like this: if baptism is for the forgiveness of sin and Jesus has no sin why did he need to be baptized?
The simple answer is that Jesus did not need to be baptized; rather, he wanted to be baptized. He chose to be baptized not because he had sin that would need to be forgiven but rather to further embrace the human condition that begs for forgiveness and healing.
The more complex answer would make a distinction between the baptism of John in the Jordan River and Christian baptism. The baptism of John was a ritual washing that signified repentance. Although not totally clear, there is evidence that the ritual washing was popular in Jewish piety at the time of Jesus and John.
While Christian baptism does signify repentance and the forgiveness of sin, the cause for this forgiveness is not the washing but the union of the baptized with Christ whose death and resurrection sets us free from sin. In Christian baptism the person being baptized goes down into the water (or more the practice today, the water is poured over the head, which is reminiscent of the earlier practice) and dies with Christ so that they will share in his resurrection.
As a result of this union with Christ the forgiveness of sin is handed on to the newly baptized. What’s more is that this union with Christ is a union with him in his body, the church. The individual, while remaining an individual, is now joined to all other Christians as a brother or sister.
Jesus, though without sin, enters into the baptismal waters and represents a humanity in need of forgiveness and healing. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism thus focus on Jesus’ relationship with John and Jesus’ relationship with the Father.
The liturgy for this year (Cycle B) has the account from the Gospel of Mark. The first part of the passage deals with John’s proclamation of preparation. His mission is to prepare for the coming of the Lord. His baptism is not the same as the baptism that the Christ will offer as he says: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John is the one who comes before, he is the prophet who prepares the way for Jesus. With Jesus’ baptism, John’s role is complete. The focus is now on Jesus alone.
Jesus arrives at the Jordan and is baptized by John at which point the Spirit hovers above in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven speaks to him saying: “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased.”
The public ministry of Jesus is about to begin. At this point we see the Father express his love for his Son. In Mark’s account the Father speaks directly to Jesus. In Matthew and Luke the Father speaks to those gathered, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, listen to him.” The Markan account highlights the relationship between the Father and the Son; a relationship in which, through baptism, all Christians will be invited to participate.
The Spirit represented by the dove completes the Trinitarian presence and foreshadows the outpouring of the Spirit through Christian baptism, which will only be possible after the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The presence of the Spirit also signifies the anointing of the Messiah for his mission.
The Father’s acclamation of praise for the Son harkens back to the Isaian prophecy contained in the first reading for Sunday’s liturgy. The mission of Jesus will bring to fulfillment the mission of the servant in Isaiah. He is the one who will “bring forth justice to the nations.” He is the new “covenant” and he is the “light of the nations.” He is the one who will “open the eyes of the blind” and the one who will bring out of prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who dwell in darkness.”
The Father’s words at the baptism point us forward to the ministry now unfolding. Jesus’ mission is for justice not in human terms but a divine justice in which mercy triumphs over sin; where life is victorious over death. The triumph and victory come after a battle — the battle with evil. This battle is immediately seen in the next scene in the Gospel where Jesus is driven by the Spirit to the desert to be tempted by Satan. The battle with evil will culminate in Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.
The salvation accomplished through Christ is an act of love. God’s love for his people is manifest in Christ Jesus. We experience this love in a very concrete way in our baptism. Baptized into the death of Christ we share his life. This, however, is not the end but the beginning of our response. This response to God’s love is a faith filled life seeking to do good and to live according to truth.
The second reading for today’s liturgy (second option – 1 John 5:1-9) brings this to the fore as it ties our faith to keeping God’s commandments so that our whole life becomes a response to the great love that God has for us. We recognize that the life we live is not our own but a gift from God.
The celebration of the Lord’s baptism commemorates his baptism by John in the Jordan but also points forward to our baptism through which we enter into the mystery of divine life.
And so we might ask the question again: why was Jesus baptized? The simple but profound answer is that he loves us and wants us to share in his divine life.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.