A Baptism of Life and Death

A newborn’s baptism is a very exciting, and very interesting, time of a family’s life.  Mom and Dad are thrilled for their child to enter into the life of the Church, put on Christ, and be cleansed of original sin.  Godparents are there to support and love this child in hopes of accompanying him/her to the everlasting Kingdom.  The rest of the family comes into town to witness the rebirth of a child just born.  It is a very exciting moment!  However, things get a little weird… All of that seems to be forgotten when you find yourself sitting in the front row of the church and the priest calls you up with your child, spouse, and godparents.  You suddenly realize your vulnerability as your family is awkwardly presented to the rest of the congregation.  The only thing you can think of now as you stare down at your newborn child—who regardless of gender is wearing a white dress—is, “please don’t cry, please don’t cry.”  You can’t be the family with the kid who cries during the baptism; that can’t be a good sign.  At the font you come to notice (even though you specifically assigned one person to the task) there are somehow 18 people in your family trying to take pictures of the priest pouring water over your child’s head.  Flustered, you return to your pew confused about what just happened.  Your child was baptized in the water of new life while you were baptized in the fires of awkwardness.

I have yet to have a child baptized, however, I have gathered this information from observing the experience of many families who find themselves in the front row awaiting a baptism.  I hope that this is not my experience in the next couple months when we baptize our newborn.  I also hope to help people avoid this awkward exposure by coming to know more about Baptism and what it actually is.  Seems fitting that today, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we take a look at Jesus’s baptism to gather insight on what we are bringing our children into at the font of new life.

The Baptism of Jesus, while only two verses in Luke, gives us an announcement of the beginning and the end.  This event is easily identified as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry where he was anointed by the Holy Spirit and revealed by God to those in attendance (CCC 535).  The event also makes a mysterious announcement about the end of Jesus’ life.  The Baptism reveals both the mystery of who Jesus is and what is to happen to him.

The most obvious revelation in this event points to the mystery of who Jesus is as the anointed Son of God.  Luke tells us that after Jesus was baptized, “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:22).  We are immediately confronted by the mystery of the Trinity playing a role in the Baptism.  The Father’s voice confirms what the angel proclaimed to Mary in the Annunciation while the Holy Spirit anoints Jesus as Christ, messiah.  We see again the announcement of a divine savior in the person of Jesus, and we can hear the echoes from the prophet Isaiah.

Luke’s account of the Baptism of Jesus shares similar language with the book of Isaiah which reveals more about Jesus as messiah.  We read in Isaiah 11, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse…and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” (Isaiah 11:1-2).  Luke is pointing to Jesus as this descendant of Jesse (father of David as we see in Luke 3:31-32) whom the Spirit comes to rest upon.  Isaiah goes on to tell us that this descendant will be judge (11:4) and establish a peaceful kingdom.  Jesus is the promised Davidic king who will establish a peaceful kingdom.  Isaiah uses similar language later on when he describes the Lord’s servant who “will bring forth justice to the nations” (42:1), “open the eyes that are blind” (42:7), and create things new (42:9).  The Spirit rests upon Jesus at his Baptism and anoints him as this promised king, however, if Jesus is truly this promised king, why would he need to be baptized?

The true mystery of Jesus’ Baptism is found in how it points to his death.  Jesus did not need to be baptized in the strict sense of the term because, as we saw in verse 22, he was God’s Son with whom God was pleased (without sin).  Nevertheless, Jesus “allows himself to be numbered among sinners” (CCC 536) by being baptized alongside them (Luke 3:21).  Jesus shows that he has not come to save us from a heavenly throne, but rather as one of us.  In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Cardinal Ratzinger goes even further in saying that Jesus “inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners”, thus he accepts the death “for the sins of humanity.”  Jesus is baptized as one of us and loads “the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders” in preparation for his salvific act on the cross.  We cannot help but be reminded of the scapegoat of Israel in Leviticus 16:20-22 who bears the sins of the Israelites into the wilderness.  Jesus is loaded with the sins of humanity in his Baptism then sent into the wilderness in the very next chapter.  Jesus is the divine Son and messiah who has accepted his mission which will be fulfilled by accepting the death rightfully due to all sinners.  His Baptism in the Jordan reveals this great mystery of contradiction.

Christian baptism is therefore a participation in Jesus’ humble acceptance of the death of a sinner.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it beautifully, “The Christian must enter into this mystery of humble self-abasement and repentance, go down in to the water with Jesus in order to rise with him, be reborn of water and the Spirit so as to become the Father’s beloved son in the Son” (CCC 537).  Jesus identifies with us in his Baptism which points to his death on the cross.  He then glorifies our earthly bodies in his resurrection and ascension.  In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells us that he must be baptized in order to “fulfill all righteous.”  He must identify with us as sinners in order to make all things right again by bringing us home to the Father.  It is in our own baptism that we take the first step in making things right again with Jesus.  We come to identify with Jesus, die with him, so that we may rise with him as adopted sons of the Father.  As Christians we must conform our lives to his so that we may, on the last day when all things are made right, hear those same words, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

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