Along with the visit of the Magi and the Wedding Feast of Cana, the Baptism of the Lord is considered an “Epiphany” – a manifestation or revelation of God in the world – that the Word has become Flesh and dwelt among us. They all contain unexpected signs that reveal Jesus’ identity and lead to belief in him. At the Baptism of Jesus, we have a manifestation of the Holy Trinity – that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When Jesus comes up out of the water, the Spirit, like a dove, descends upon him, and the voice of the Father from heaven says, “You are my beloved Son.” But we also see how the Son of God is manifested in the flesh – the sign through which he reveals himself. And this is what is so surprising about the baptism of Jesus. If the baptism of John is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins – a call to conversion, why would Jesus who is without sin submit himself to John’s baptism? In Matthew’s account, John himself is surprised to see Jesus approach him and even tries to prevent him saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Some commentators suggest that in the act of being baptized, Jesus is not being made holy but making the water holy for our baptism and showing us the path by which we are to follow. But there is something deeper going on. Jesus is not simply being a model for us or blessing the waters, but what we see revealed is God’s method for the “fulfillment of all righteousness”, i.e., God’s plan for the salvation of the human race – how he saves us. In the act of descending into the waters of the Jordan, accepting John’s baptism, Jesus identifies himself with sinners – he literally stands with sinners. He expresses his solidarity with sinful humanity. He steps into the place of sinners. What Jesus does at the Jordan is an anticipation of the Cross. His going down into the waters is an acceptance of death for the sins of all humanity and an expression of his unreserved “yes” to the Father’s will. Coming up out of the water with the heavens being torn open is an anticipation of the Resurrection and the fulfillment of his mission to die for us for the forgiveness of our sins, to reconcile us to the Father, and open for us the path to heaven. The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan is where Jesus identifies himself with us. When we are baptized – receiving the sacrament of Baptism – we receive our identification with Jesus – we are made sons and daughters in the Son. God the Father looks on us and loves us as he does Jesus. The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan anticipates his death. Our baptism is the point where we anticipate rising again with him. In Jesus’ baptism, he takes on the role of one who suffers with others. In the embrace of fallen humanity all the way to the point of death, sin and suffering are transformed into the path of life. In our baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to anoint us – we are baptized with Holy Spirit – God dwells within us, and we come to share in Christ’s mission. When we identify with sinners – when we enter into the fallen condition of others and embrace them in their weakness – express our solidarity with them and walk with them in their struggle, a path for conversion is opened and the “voice” of God is heard and the presence of Christ is revealed in a convincing way. One becomes a surprising sign of His presence.
In the common mentality, everyone is measured according to what they can do or achieve. In this mentality, one is afraid to show weakness or admit a mistake or failure out of fear of rejection. But we see at the Baptism of Jesus that before Jesus does anything – before he preaches one word or heals one person – before the public ministry begins, the Father says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” This is how God looks on us as his sons and daughters. God’s love for us is not dependent on what we do. His love comes first. Accepting that we are loved according to God’s measure – that being loved is our identity that precedes anything we do and makes us who we are – is the starting point from which everything else flows – our conversion and the grace to live the moral life and to keep the commandments. We hear in the 2nd reading St. John say, “For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” When someone recognizes and accepts that they are loved, one is freely moved to do the good for the other and it doesn’t feel like a burden. How many of us have had this experience either with a suffering child or with an infirm parent who needs care? The elderly parent is often afraid to ask for help because they don’t want to become a “burden” on anyone, and our response is, “Mom, don’t be silly. You could never be a burden to me. I love you.” There is not a question or an internal debate about caring for the other – it is not something to decide or to choose to do. For the one in love, there is no other reasonable option. The “yes” to sacrifice for the other is not made out of a sense of obligation or fulfilled through one’s willpower. It is rather a response to an extraordinary love that one has received. “For whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.” In baptism we are “begotten by God” – made a new creation – born again – given new life by his love, and the victory that conquers the world is that we no longer operate and look at others according to the measure of the world. Faith recognize this extraordinary and surprising love as the sign of his presence – that God dwells among us – that he is alive in the lives of Christians.
A friend of mine named Rose teaches theology at a small private Catholic high school. One day, after school, one of her students asked to speak with her. The student said, “I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced God’s love for me. I don’t know if I even believe in God.” Rose listened to her and affirmed what she was struggling with. “If I didn’t have an experience of God’s love, I don’t know why I would believe either.” The encounter with the student became a provocation for Rose to ask herself why she believes what she teaches and to speak from her own experience. She affirmed the student: asking the question is the first step because it shows you are taking your experience seriously and seeking God. This is where authentic prayer begins. We are not convinced by a lesson on love or a theological explanation. We are only convinced by the experience of being loved. Rose stayed with the girl for an hour, listening to her. She didn’t lay out a scriptural argument or quote the catechism to the girl, rather, she shared her own experience that brought her to faith and sustains her faith – being with a community of faith where she experiences the presence of Christ and his love for her. She could identify with the girl in her struggle and was open to walking with her through this difficulty. Rose didn’t do what she did out of obligation thinking she had to “win one for God” but because her heart was moved with pity for the girl, as Christ was moved with compassion for those who were lost. Here, Rose was a sign of Christ’s presence. Not only would the encounter provoke the question in the student, “who is this teacher who is willing to spend so much time with me?”, but it became something surprising for Rose too. What did this girl see in Rose that made her willing to make herself vulnerable and express her doubts and failures to her? (She is telling her theology teacher that she’s not sure she believes in God!) The sign for Rose that Christ was present in this encounter was that in saying yes to it, she was given a greater capacity to love. The experience was not tiring but life-giving and filled her with joy. I’ve had this same experience many times as a priest that makes me more certain of his presence – that it is not my efforts that are producing the “good” but Him who lives in me.
When have you been loved in an extraordinary way and found yourself, despite yourself, loving freely in this same way? This is what manifests the presence of Christ. This is the fruit of our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection when we accept and respond to the presence in our lives that says, “you are my beloved son or daughter with whom I am well pleased.”