The first luminous mystery, the Baptism of Christ

Anthony Zimmerman
November 12, 2002
Reproduced with Permission

The Baptism of Christ is the first of the Five Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary recently commended to us by our ever inventive Holy Father. We do well, he said, to ponder the Mysteries through the eyes of Mary, for "from Jesus's conception until his resurrection and ascension into heaven, the Mother kept the gaze of her immaculate heart on her divine Son; a wonderful, penetrating, sorrowful and radiant insight."

Indeed, Mary had that special motherly concern for her Son from the moment she became His mother, for God had entrusted the initial education of Jesus to her, together with Joseph. The Archangel Gabriel had announced that His name shall be called Jesus "because He will save His people from their sins". The words implied that they should educate Him to form that warm, firm and inventive kind of character that will motivate Him to be our Savior. After Jesus left home, she surely followed, as best she could, the events of His Baptism, the Wedding at Cana, the Proclamation of the Kingdom, the Transfiguration on Tabor, and the Last Supper. We join her as we too ponder the first of the Luminous Mysteries.

By His own Baptism Jesus pioneered the reception of Baptism for us, together with the duties attached to the Sacrament. Baptism is a ladder stretching from the base in our secular world up and beyond the clouds into the Imperium above.

Some of the Church Fathers were puzzled that Jesus should join the motley rabble of sinners whom John the Baptist was cleansing in the River Jordan. Jesus had not sinned, so why should He descend into the flowing waters to be cleansed symbolically? John was puzzled too, and suggested that He do no such thing. Jesus responded cryptically: "Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness" (Matt 3:15). Why is it the way of righteousness? He did not explain.

The context refers to Isaiah chapters 42 and 53, where we read about the Servant of the Lord who will take upon Himself our sins and redeem us: "He was pierced for our offenses and crushed for our sins. Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole; by his stripes we were healed" (53:5). With sinners Jesus was baptized, showing His solidarity with those whose sins He would take upon Himself. John saw the light, and proclaimed the next day: "Look, there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).

What sins had John's penitents committed? Some were stingy and kept two coats for themselves whereas their neighbor had none. Others were selfish and ate plenty, not sharing with the hungry. Tax collectors had doctored the books and cheated; military personnel took advantage of their position to extort cash and make false accusations. And they grumbled about their pay. John told them to mend their ways, then plunged them into the flowing river. I am sure that John would find plenty to launder in me if I had come there, and perhaps even in you.

The prophet minced no words when he faced a hypocritic "brood of vipers." Hostile priests and Levites came to interrogate him about "unauthorized action", but he told them, too, to mend their ways and to follow Christ. Happy to say, some of them apparently did so later on. After the resurrection "the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased enormously. There were many priests among them who embraced the faith" (Acts 6:7)

John was the final prophet of the Old Testament. His life marks the cosmic divide between the pre-Christian world and the Years of the Lord. Christ Himself lived in the Old initially. He was circumcised in the Old Testament rite on the eighth day after His birth. Mary and Joseph offered for Him a pair of pigeons or two turtle doves as the old law dictated: "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord" (cf. Luke 2:23). He advised Peter to pay the temple tax for Him, although that should not have been necessary in His case (Matt 17: 24ff). He did not make waves where that would have been without purpose.

The Baptism was also a planned political move. Jesus thereby received powerful public endorsement from John to start His mission. People were taking sides, offended priests turning against John, humble sinners flocking to him. By His Baptism Jesus sided with John, acknowledging his work to be from heaven.

With His Baptism, Jesus began to recruit His Church. He now took over the control of religious affairs in this world, from Adam, from Noah, from Abraham, from Moses, from Elijah, and from the High Priest in Jerusalem. The Establishment had made strict rules about the Sabbath, and now Jesus declared Himself to be Lord also of the Sabbath. He tipped over tables of money changers in the Temple and created a scene. When the authorities challenged Him He retorted that they would learn soon enough, when they would see Him rebuild the "temple" in three days.

The Baptism of Jesus was so important that Luke dates it with three chronological markers: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee" (Luke 3:1) all of which locate the time between 27 and 29 A.D.

At the Baptism of Jesus we hear for the first time about the Blessed Trinity: "And when he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:10-11). The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are designated in this scene for the first time in the Bible.

Why are Baptisms so few in Japan, a country of wonderfully good people, whereas so many of them admire the fringes of Christianity? Japanese tourists make a beaten path to the Holy Land, then visit St. Peter's in Rome to gasp at its beauty and sheer size, and inevitably climb up to the cupola on top of the dome to gaze over the city. They visit the Sistine Chapel, perhaps feel their ears tingle with the Gregorian song at Mass or Vespers, followed by a treat from St. Peter's twin pipe organ. They buy souvenirs and send home postcards with Vatican stamps. At home again, they send their children to Catholic schools, visit our hospitals, treat us kindly. Many even study the catechism. But that final step of receiving Baptism still eludes the most of them. That is unfortunate. We must help the Lord to update His time table.

So when we pray the Mystery of Christ's Baptism, let us pray with Mary that the Japanese nation, and all nations of the world, will follow the example of Christ and accept Baptism, precious dew from heaven. The Third Millennium must not pass before all the world is baptized.

The scene of Christ's Baptism is dynamic, for it is at this very moment that the Old Testament is on its way out and the New Testament makes its beginning. The Sacrament of Baptism is the arched bridge over which we pass with the parade of Jesus from the Old into the New. As the Catechism says:

1267 Baptism makes us members of the Body of Christ: "Therefore... we are members one of another." Baptism incorporates us into the Church. From the baptismal fonts is born the one People of God of the New Covenant, which transcends all the natural or human limits of nations, cultures, races and sexes: "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body."

Baptism forgives original sin and all actual sins for the recipients. Some people of the early Church postponed Baptism until they were thirty years old or so, figuring that they could thereby wash away their youthful indiscretions and turn over a new leaf for a better managed adult life. At that early time the Sacrament of Confession was not as easily available for certain public sins as it is today, and when one confessed a crime, the penance could be stiff. The sins of idolatry, murder, and fornication were specially reserved. Emperor Constantine even postponed his Baptism until he was on his death bed, wanting a clean slate when he departed this life. Which was foolish, like buying a ticket for a ball game when it is almost over.

The Apostolic Tradition mandates infant Baptism. We owe it to our children to Baptize them and to teach them the Ten Commandments even before they learn their reading writing and arithmetic.

"Christ rises from the waters, and the world rises with him" proclaimed Saint Gregory of Nanzianzus, who lived to be a nonagenarian (276-374). I like his sermons especially because he is always brilliant. He was converted to the faith by his wife Nonna and they had three children. Then he became a priest and with it, as was the tradition, the couple was obligated to practice perfect chastity. All three children, plus his wife and himself, became saints. Not a bad record for post-ordination celibacy.

We thank Christ for allowing Himself to be baptized by John, as we pray the First Luminous Mystery. He can say to us: "Been there. Done that." We pray that during this third millennium eventually all nations of the world will become Christians and be baptized.