Gospel Commentary: The Baptism of Jesus

The appointed time had arrived. The "hidden years" of Christ's life had drawn to a close. In Nazareth, plying the carpenter's trade, Jesus had labored for 30 years in silent obscurity, making tables and stools and plows. Perhaps tales of angels proclaiming the Messiah, and an Infant worshipped in a manger still found eager listeners among those who awaited the One who was to come. Certainly many remembered the paranoid Herod's bloody massacre of infants in the neighborhood of Bethlehem as he sought to obliterate yet another perceived threat to his petty throne. Nosy neighbors undoubtedly recalled unusual visitors from the East who had visited a poor young couple and their new Child before the family had vanished into the night. There may even have been a few rabbis and doctors of the law who still discussed a most unusual Lad, who had astonished them with His wisdom and insights as they debated in the temple courts once upon a time. On this particular day, probably sometime in December of the year A.D. 27, a young Galilean approached the new prophet, John the Baptist, as he stood in the muddy waters of the Jordan. The Man had no stately bearing to attract attention; there was nothing particularly noteworthy about His appearance … yet the Baptist, usually resolute, hesitated — until reassured by the One who stood before him that this had to be. Just as many before Him had been baptized, so now was this Son of Man. Here began the public life of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Immediately the skies were ripped open and a theophany — a bold and visible revelation of the deepest Mystery of eternity — unfolded. The Son, the Word, Eternal Wisdom made man, is immersed in the waters of the river. The Holy Spirit, the Consoler, the Paraclete, descends from the clouds. The Father, the Unbegotten, the Origin of all Being, thunders from the heavens, "You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased!" The Mystery of the Trinity of God, revealed privately to the Virgin more than 30 years earlier, is now made manifest before the crowds. Why was Jesus baptized? He was sinless; the bath of repentance could not make Him holy. In Matthew's Gospel account of this moment in the life of Christ, the former tax collector records the brief exchange where Jesus tells His cousin John; "Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." The humanity of the God Man, perfect as it was, still had to be subjected to baptism in accordance with the Father's plan, so that Christ, the "firstborn of many brethren" could establish the pattern that His brothers were later to follow. At His baptism, it was not Jesus who was cleansed, but the waters themselves which were purified by their encounter with the spotless Lamb of God. Now water, a mere physical substance, confers Spirit, grace, light and love — the very Life of God Himself — to the souls of those baptized. At the close of the Christmas season at the dawn of the third millennium, we are reminded of the power of this great sacrament which immerses us in the life, death and resurrection of the One who was baptized so many centuries ago. The guilt of original sin is washed away. An indelible sacramental character conforms us to Christ. The Holy Spirit is given as a gift, and abides continually in the soul … and God the Father leads us to embrace our eternal destiny with Him, by the grace conferred upon us by Jesus Christ, whose own baptism we celebrate today. Amen. Fr. Riley is parochial vicar at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Warrenton and professor of sacred Scripture at Christendom College in Front Royal.

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