The Baptism of Jesus

Anthony Zimmerman
March 9, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Mt 3:13-17).

John had good reason to wonder why Jesus asked to be baptized. Why should the Messiah descend into the River Jordan, there to be washed by John? Surely, Jesus had not sinned - that same Jesus who was the Son of God, who had once sent the gift of the Holy Spirit to his mother Elizabeth and to himself still in his mother's womb:

And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy (Luke 141-44).

But Jesus told John to do the baptizing even if John doesn't know why this should be done. "Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness." John and Jesus together must do this to fill up to the full what is right and proper for them to do. John then consented, bowing to the superior knowledge and will of Jesus.

Jesus was not Himself a sinner, but He chose to take upon Himself the sins of the world as though they were His own. He loathed them. He made Himself the cloaca or our sins as He stood on the banks of the Jordan; He then had John wash Him to symbolically clean them off again; next He paid the price for those sins by the shedding His blood; finally He invites us to be baptized and to receive the sacraments for the forgiveness of our sins. The forgiveness of our sins means so very much to Jesus.

John began to understand. The very next day John started recruiting disciples for Jesus. He picked his favorite followers and said to them: "Look, there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). It was the turning point of his mission: "Don't stop here with me," he advised. "There is the One whom you must follow."

Jesus symbolized by being baptized with sinners, that He willingly took upon Himself all the sins of the Old Testament as well as of the New, that He would offer Himself as the Victim to expiate our guilt in the sight of God: "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" (Isaiah 53:5).

After Jesus had endured the cross, after He had risen from the dead, He would then commission His disciples to "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:19-20). The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan was linked directly to the Sacrament of Baptism in the Church that He founded. The mighty waters of the Jordan cleansed the body, the sacred waters of Baptism would cleanse our souls of original sin and of all other sins we may have committed. The Blessed Trinity infuses into our souls at Baptism the ineffable life of Sanctifying Grace by which God makes us His offspring, members of His family and household. His kingdom is His family of adopted children.

The Baptism of Jesus called for a new celebration, for another sign from heaven. As Jesus rose from the waters, the Father was right there to greet Him. He welcomed back home, as it were, the "prodigal" Son who had taken upon Himself the sins of the world. The Father rejoiced greatly that His beloved Son had now engaged Himself publicly on this mission and congratulated Him with the words: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." The living Breath of the mutual love of Father and Son also heightened the sacredness of this important event in the history of the world: "The heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him." The explicit naming of the Blessed Trinity is rare in the Gospels. We find it three times, here, on Tabor, and before Christ's ascension into heaven.

By this revelation of the Blessed Trinity, the Old Testament comes to an end, and the New begins. John is the borderline, straddling the Old Testament with the power of Elijah denouncing sin, stepping into the New by announcing to the first disciples: "Behold the Lamb of God." As Saint John Chrysostom observed, John holds the two Testaments together by grasping one to the right, the other to the left, and tying them together.

To be baptized by the prophet marked the old, but the coming down of the Spirit shadowed out the new. And like as though any one were to place himself in the space between any two persons that were standing apart, and stretching forth both his hands were to lay hold on either side, and tie them together; even so hath He done, joining the old covenant with the new, God's nature with man's, the things that are His with ours (Homily on Mt 12, 3).

The Jews and the Muslims remain stranded in the Old Testament, without stepping over the borderline into the New. Jesus did His very best unto the end to convince His fellow nationals to convert: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). Some did, fortunately, but the leaders of the Jews did not. They fanatically did what they could to prevent the masses from converting. Even today many of the Jews harbor a fierce nationalism by which they fence themselves in and away from the Church as though with an iron curtain. With Jesus, we pray:

"Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee, since thou hast given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him. And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent (John 17:1-3).

Just as adamantly as most Jews distance themselves from Christianity, so also Muslims ideologically shut out the Blessed Trinity from their formula of faith. They proclaim, almost ferociously when challenged, the mantra "Allah is ONE God." I had an experience, a bit shocking, when meeting a Muslim casually. He noticed my Roman collar and turned to me with the words: "Allah is One!!!!!" He lectured at me with a one-way stream of words. He demonstrated to me how difficult it is for Muslims to convert, to believe in the Blessed Trinity.

However, I have a feeling that this twenty-first century will see a great homecoming, namely the Muslims trickling into the Christian world slowly at first, then join us in a mass migration. Why not? Globalization of language, of life-styles, of economies, of cultures will - I hope optimistically - will ultimately find us rubbing elbows at Mass and Holy Communion with Muslim converts. Wait and see! The world is becoming a village, and villages tend to "emulsify" the population. But back to our theme.

The Father declared on the occasion of Christ's Baptism that "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." He thereby invited the entire human race to share in His own fatherly delight in His Son. The Spirit also appeared in the form of a dove, to invite us into the select company of the divine circle of the Trinity. A dove does not threaten, is not dangerous, is simple. A dove coos with an endearing voice, shimmers with feathers of enticing color, soft to the touch. The Blessed Trinity is lovely, is loving, IS love.

The Blessed Trinity, foreshadowed in the Old Testament

God did not yet reveal Himself as One and Triune to our first parents whom we call Adam and Eve. The Catechism states that He revealed Himself to them, but is silent about the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity: "Wishing to open up the way to heavenly salvation, he manifested himself to our first parents from the very beginning." He invited them to intimate communion with himself and clothed them with resplendent grace and justice (CCC 54).

God provided fleeting insights into the Trinity even in the Old Testament, as when He spoke: "And now let us create man." Note the plural form. God's Wisdom is pictured in some passages of the Old Testament as a Person, a Companion:

For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. Though she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets (Wisdom 7:25-27).

And in the Book of Proverbs we find the magnificent passage about the companionship of Wisdom with God doing the works of creation, a passage so horizon-spanning that we all love to read it from time to time:

Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth; before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men (Proverbs 8:23-31).

The Son of God is foreshadowed here, but not yet fully revealed. The first member of the human race to whom God revealed this precious mystery must be the Blessed Virgin Mary. The angel instructed her that she is invited to become the mother of the Son of God. If there is a Son, there must be a Father also. Mary could hardly miss that point. Moreover, she was told: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). God did not leave Mary in ignorance about the sublime mystery of the Blessed Trinity to Whom she became so closely associated.

Perhaps Elizabeth and Zechariah received faith through their association with Mary. And then Joseph with whom Mary could fully share what she had heard. Then, thirty years later, the Blessed Trinity revealed their triune unity to John the Baptist, and the New Testament was on its way. In thanksgiving for this revelation, let us express our faith in the Most Holy Trinity in words mainly formulated by the Fathers at the Council of Nicea in the year 325. As we do so, let us ask God to bring the fulness of faith in the Blessed Trinity to the Muslims as well, and to the Jews, and to all the world:

I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten by the Father... I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. Amen.