Why Was Jesus Baptized?

SCRIPTURES & ART: Jesus had nothing of which to repent. So, what is the sense of this feast? Here are two reasons.

Józef Buchbinder (1839-1909), "The Baptism of the Lord"
Józef Buchbinder (1839-1909), "The Baptism of the Lord" (photo: Public Domain)

The Sunday after Epiphany is always the Baptism of the Lord (unless Epiphany is observed on Jan. 7 or 8 in those countries like the United States where it is transferred to a Sunday, in which case the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated on the next Monday). It is the last Sunday of the Christmas season. Ordinary Time resumes the next day, i.e., Monday, Jan. 10.

Why do we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord? 

First, it was not sacramental Baptism as we Catholics understand Baptism. Second, it was explicitly — as John the Baptist pointed out — a sign of repentance. But Jesus did not sin. He had nothing of which to repent.

So, what is the sense of this feast? Let me suggest two things.

First, while Jesus did not sin, he bore our sins. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we all might know the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). That alludes to what Jesus is getting at when John tries not to baptize him but Jesus insists, telling him to “let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15, the text we will hear next year on this feast). By receiving John’s baptism, Jesus expresses his solidarity with us.

That solidarity is important, in two ways.  Let me suggest an analogy. Although Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, Catholic attendance at Mass that day is generally good. Why do people go to have ashes imprinted on their foreheads?

Lenten ashes, like John’s Baptism, was a sign of repentance. We receive this mark as a sign that we are all in this together, as a Church, seeking to turn from evil and turn to good. Jesus, who is the first fruits of our redemption, our leader in that turn to God, does not lead from afar. He’s down in the trenches with us, “like us in all things but sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

When we try to see sin and the need for repentance through Jesus’ eyes, the gravity of sin becomes much more real. Jesus, who “fully reveals man to himself,” (Gaudium et spes, nr 22), is a real human being, indeed, the real human being. Jesus shows us what man free from sin should live and look like. Our broken humanity is not the way we should be: He is.  

If we understand that sin is really alien to us, even if it is familiar, then we come to realize that human freedom does not exist to put us in some kind of neutral position between good and evil. Freedom exists for the good and, when used for evil, it is self-destructive, it is un-freedom. To realize, then, that sin is truly foreign to whom we as human beings are, then Jesus — looking at sin as a sinless person — truly realizes the depth, horror, and damage that sin represents. In being free from sin, Jesus is therefore also free from its effects, like concupiscence (the inclination towards considering sin as an option, as some kind of attractive “good”) and its consequences, like death (even though he “humbled himself and became obedient even unto death” — Philippians 2:8). Only when we realize how foreign sin was to Jesus as human can we grasp the utter abandonment he felt in “being made sin for us” expressed in his cry, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).  

In declaring his solidarity with us sinners, even though he is sinless, we realize what love God has for us.

Second, this feast is a theophany, a “revelation of God.”  

Both last Sunday and this Sunday are “phanies” – the Epiphany, a theophany. In both instances, Jesus’ divine identity is revealed.

Last Sunday, the Magi take their cue from God’s natural revelation and affirm Jesus’ identity through their symbolic gifts, pointing to the Christ Child as king, God, and mortal. This Sunday, we meet Christ 30 years later, where his identity is confirmed by God himself.

John begins to point to Jesus’ identity by pointing away from himself. Despite the crowd’s suspicions that “John might be the Christ” (remember, “Christ” means “the Anointed One,” i.e., the Messiah), John denies it. Then the Gospel moves to Jesus’ Baptism and what happened right after it. “Heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him… and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son. ...’” While John’s baptism was not sacramental as we understand that term today, the Trinity is very explicitly connected to it. John said he was not the “anointed one of God.” God himself says who is.

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by Józef Buchbinder’s painting,Chrzest Chrystusa” [The Baptism of Christ]. Buchbinder (1839-1909) was a Polish painter, born a Jew but received into the Church at age 16. He began his artistic career a little earlier, going to Warsaw to study art. He later studied in Dresden and Munich before launching into his own artistic career in Paris and Rome before returning to Warsaw in 1870. In Rome he came in contact with the St. Luke Academy and other Christian art circles, in which much of his career remained.

Chrzest Chrystusa” limits itself to the essential dramatis personae: John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. That itself is important, because many “Baptism” paintings include others in the scene, e.g., either other members of the crowd awaiting baptism from John and/or other witnesses to the act of Jesus’ baptism, usually either some of John’s disciples and/or angels who hold Jesus’ clothes.  

The scene is generally dark. The left side of the painting is brown and barren, in keeping with the generally barren land surrounding that part of the River Jordan near the Ford of Bethabara, where John was traditionally believed to have baptized. John is in his penitential garb, a camel-skin robe, which blends him into his surroundings. Two silent witnesses on his part point to his affirmation of Jesus’ identity: the cross staff in his left hand, on which is surmounted the banner “Ecce Agnus …” (“Behold, the Lamb of God” – John 1:29, repeated “the next day” in v. 36) and Jesus’ sandals on the riverbank, alluding to John’s own professed unworthiness to “loosen the thongs of his sandals” (Luke 3:16).

Jesus, on the right, stands in a more bluish area, his cloak the most explicitly blue item in the painting, although a general bluish haze dominates the scene. The blue tones can, of course, allude to the water, but the generally subdued haze is broken where the Holy Spirit enters the picture, his light also illuminating the humble Jesus more prominently than John. As Jesus’ baptism begins his public ministry, i.e., the beginning of the end of the reign of sin, can we ask whether the Holy Spirit’s light breaking into the otherwise toned down colors alludes to “the people who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the shadow of death, a light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2)?

A genuinely Catholic approach to baptism sees salvation as something communal and embodied.

Water Is Thicker Than Blood

COMMENTARY: Our baptism into Christ’s passion and death purifies our political passions and saves us from deadly idolatry.