The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Matthew 3:13-17
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Below is the text of a homily given by a priest friend of mine last Sunday.
The Baptism of the Lord, a second Epiphany
Today is the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord; yes, I say it is the feast of the Lord’s Epiphany! For indeed, the Epiphany is not only the commemoration of the adoration of the Magi, but it includes also two other mysteries: Our Lord’s baptism in the Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana. And so, today’s feast of Christ’s baptism is a second Epiphany – for this reason, from ancient times, the Baptism of the Lord has been celebrated on the octave of the Epiphany.
The very word Epiphany means “manifestation”; Epiphany is the manifestation of Christ to the world. In Bethlehem, shortly after our Lord’s birth, there was the first Epiphany, a hidden Epiphany – for none but the Magi (and the shepherds before them) recognized the Child as the Christ and true Lord of all. This first manifestation was part of the hidden life of Christ, hence it is a private Epiphany.
Today, however, we have the second Epiphany which is a public Epiphany – for it is with his baptism that the Lord begins his public ministry. Now, at the age of thirty, our Savior manifests himself publicly and before all.
And what is the Epiphany which we celebrate at the Lord’s baptism? What about Christ was made manifest to the world today? Behold, the heavens were opened and the Spirit descended and the voice of the Father was heard – This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. This is the Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ: He is revealed to all as the true Son of God, and God himself!
Christ was not baptized for his own sake
And yet, there is a difficulty which arises as we consider the baptism of the Lord. For indeed, the baptism of John was a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. How then can it be that Christ the Lord should come to be baptized? He is without sin, he is Messiah and Lord – why should he submit himself to the baptism of John?
This was what troubled St. John the Baptist – he recognizes the dignity of the Lord and he tries to prevent Christ from coming to be baptized. It is only at our Savior’s persistence that John is willing to baptize him.
And so we ask: Why was Christ baptized by John? What is the meaning of this event?
Let us be very clear – Christ had no need of John’s baptism, it was not for his sake that he was baptized. The Savior already was filled with the Holy Spirit and, from the very moment of his conception, the heavens were opened to him. He already knew with certainty that he is the Son of God the Father. The miraculous events surrounding Christ’s baptism were not for him – he already knew who he was, he already knew himself to be true God and the Christ.
Three reasons why Christ was baptized
No, it was not for his own sake that Christ was baptized; rather, he was baptized for us. Jesus submitted himself to the baptism of John for us and for our salvation. There are many reasons why Christ was baptized, but it will be enough for us to consider three.
First, Christ was baptized in order to confirm John in his ministry. By his baptism, the Lord testifies to St. John’s life and work. Normally, we think of John as witnessing to Christ, as pointing to Christ, as giving testimony to Christ – and that is good and true, as far as it goes. But, on an even more fundamental level, it is Christ who gives testimony to John; for our Savior has no need of human testimony, his words and his saving works give testimony themselves.
In submitting himself to John’s baptism, the Lord testifies that John has indeed been sent by God. Jesus says to John, “You have prepared the way for me, well done my good and faithful servant.” And so, we are admonished by Christ to follow the indication of the Baptist, to heed his words, to prepare the way of the Lord, and to look to the Lord as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Second, the Lord was baptized in order to begin the institution of the sacrament of baptism in the life of the Church. In submitting himself to John’s baptism of water, Christ prepares the waters for the sacramental baptism in water and the Holy Spirit which he would soon give the Church.
Here we have a great mystery – the reality we witness is turned on its head. For, as Christ is submerged in the waters, it is not the waters which cleanse Christ, but Christ cleanses the waters. It is not the waters which purify Christ, but Christ purifies the waters. It is not the waters which sanctify Christ, but Christ sanctifies the waters. Through the waters of baptism, Christ will cleanse and sanctify the human race.
[It is interesting to note that there is much diversity of theological opinion regarding when Christ instituted the sacrament of baptism. St. Thomas holds that the matter was instituted here, but that the sacrament was only fully instituted after the Resurrection. Cornelius a’ Lapide (following the most learned Suarez) holds that we must look only to the post-Resurrection command to “baptize all nations,” maintaining that baptism is only foreshadowed in the Lord’s baptism by John. In any case, it is clear that the baptism Christ received was the non-sacramental baptism of John; a baptism which was mid-way between the ritual of baptism in the Old Testament and the sacramental baptism of the New Testament.]
Finally, our Savior was baptized to give an example of humility to all who would follow him. The Lord was without sin and yet he was willing to receive the baptism of John. Jesus is true God and yet he submitted himself to the baptism of the Forerunner.
If Christ, who was sinless, received the baptism of John; how much more must we who are sinners receive the baptism of Christ? The humility of our Savior is an example to us, that we might all run to the sacrament of baptism and there find true forgiveness of our sins.
And this is a point of some confusion today – for there are many, and even some in the Church, who speak and act as though baptism were not necessary. They will make it seem as though baptism were nothing more than a cute and sentimental event, a good excuse to get the family together. This type of thinking is contrary to the Gospel!
We have great need of the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is necessary for salvation, it is for this reason that Christ gave the sacrament to the Church.
Through the sacrament of baptism was are cleansed of all sin, both original sin and any actual sin; we are elevated by grace and filled with the Holy Spirit; we are incorporated into the Church, the true Body of Christ. Indeed, in this sacrament we are united to Christ in such a way that the words which almighty God spoke to our Lord at his baptism are applied also to us – we hear the Father say to each of us individually: “You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter, in you I am well pleased.”