Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, Luke 3:15-16,21-22
After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.
By baptism, men are made to be true sons of God, washed from original (and any actual) sin, infused with the virtues and gifts, built into a true temple of the Holy Trinity, and joined to the mystical Body of Christ which is the Church.
Through baptism, heaven is opened to us. However, heaven was ever open to Christ. Even from the moment of his conception he was the Son of God (by nature), he had no sin, he was filled with the perfection of all the gifts and virtues (as well as of all knowledge), his human soul was indeed that place where the fullness of Godhead deigned to dwell.
Jesus obviously could not increase in grace, being perfect from the moment of his conception – what then is the meaning of the opening of the heavens?
Why Christ observed certain rituals
We must recall that our Lord observed many rituals of his day although he was in no way needful of such rites. Thus, for example, he was redeemed by the offering of a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons – however, he most certainly did not need to be redeemed by any ritual sacrifice, being wholly pure and undefiled in himself.
Earlier, our Savior was circumcised, but he certainly had not need of circumcision.
Further, we can consider how he offered his life, not for his salvation, but for our own.
Thus too, we ought not to be in any way surprised to notice that his baptism was not for his own sake, or for an increase in grace in himself, but (like everything in his life) it was offered for our benefit, and for the glory of his Father through the salvation of men.
That Jesus did not increase in grace
Now, upon reflection, it is obvious that Jesus could not have increased in grace at any time. Indeed, the end of grace is the union of God with man – but this union was effected perfectly in Christ through the hypostatic union of the divine essence with his true human nature. Thus, because there is simply and absolutely no union between God and man which could be greater than the union of humanity and divinity in the single person of our Savior, it is quite obvious that there could be no absolute increase in grace in our Lord from the first moment of his conception.
Rather, because the grace of union was perfect in Christ from the moment of his conception (since he was true God and true man from the first moment of the Incarnation) there can be no doubt that grace (considered in itself and absolutely) did not and could not increase in Christ. He was perfected in grace from the first.
Furthermore, because our Lord enjoyed the beatific vision from the first moment of his conception – and this is necessary, if indeed he is our Savior from the beginning and not merely from some later point; for he cannot be our Savior if he is not yet even “saved” himself – and because the beatific vision is the greatest grace which a man may enjoy, from this it is obvious that our Lord could not increase in grace but was perfected in all grace from the beginning of his existence as man.
Any who would claim that our Lord increased in grace at his baptism – or who would say that he only became the Son of God at his baptism, or only became a priest at his baptism, or only received the Spirit at his baptism, or only gained the beatific vision at his baptism – all of these are falling into the adoptionist heresy.
Three reasons the heavens were opened
If, then, our Lord was always perfect in grace and did not grow into closer union with God but was always in perfect union with the divinity, and if the heavens were always opened to our Savior; why, then, did the heavens open to him at his baptism?
If the heavens were already opened to him, how could they be opened to him anew? The heavens were opened as a sign for our benefit, for the baptism of Christ is a cause of grace in us.
Aquinas (that is, the Angelic Thomas) gives three reasons:
1) To show that it is a heavenly power which sanctifies baptism and effects the grace of baptism in all those who are baptized.
2) Baptism is the “door of faith”, by which faith we gaze upon the things of heaven.
3) Finally, heaven is closed to us before we are baptized. Thus, because baptism is the opening for us to the way to heaven, the heavens were opened as a sign for us at the baptism of our Savior.
St. Luke specifies that Jesus was praying when the heavens opened
The Doctor from Aquino continues (ST III, q.39, a.5):
Now after baptism man needs to pray continually, in order to enter heaven: for though sins are remitted through baptism, there still remain the fomes of sin assailing us from within, and the world and the devils assailing us from without. And therefore it is said pointedly (Luke 3:21) that Jesus being baptized and praying, heaven was opened: because, to wit, the faithful after baptism stand in need of prayer. Or else, that we may be led to understand that the very fact that through baptism heaven is opened to believers is in virtue of the prayer of Christ. Hence it is said pointedly (Matthew 3:16) that heaven was opened to Him--that is, "to all for His sake." Thus, for example, the Emperor might say to one asking a favor for another: "Behold, I grant this favor, not to him, but to thee"--that is, "to him for thy sake," as Chrysostom says (Hom. iv in Matth. [From the supposititious Opus Imperfectum]).