Sunday Sermon for January 13, 2019, the Baptism of the Lord, Year C
Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Lk 3:15-16, 21-22
In the Gospel reading we are told that after all the people had been baptized, and Jesus had also been baptized, while He was praying the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove. Then a voice from Heaven was heard saying: “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.”
This passage has been misinterpreted in several ways. First, there are those who claim Jesus did not know He was God, but when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him He realized He was God. Being God, the divine mind of Jesus knows everything perfectly. This means there was never a time when He did not know He was God. In His human mind He always knew as perfectly as He could at the time that He was God. In other words, when He was two, He knew as perfectly as His two-year-old mind could know that He was God. There is no real way to claim that He only learned of His divinity after He was baptized.
A second misinterpretation is known as the heresy of adoptionism. This holds that Jesus was not God, but He was such a good person that God decided to adopt Him as His own Son. Once again, Jesus is God from eternity; He did not become God. In His divinity, He has no beginning and He will have no end. When He chose to take a human nature to Himself He remained a divine Person; He did not become a human person. So to claim He was a human person who became God denies the eternal divinity of Christ as well as the two natures of Christ from the womb.
Others have used this passage to deny the divinity of Christ because they believe Him to be a sinner. Why else, they reason, would He need to be baptized with a baptism of repentance? St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us St John the Baptist did not want to baptize Jesus, but Jesus insisted, so he must have known He needed to be baptized due to sin. God cannot sin. It is impossible for God to sin because sin is directly opposed to the absolute goodness of the divine nature. Indeed, John’s baptism was for repentance, but Jesus entered the waters of baptism for a different reason.
So, what are we to make of the baptism of our Lord? He is God, so there was no reason on the natural level for Him to be baptized. Therefore, we need to look deeper to understand why He insisted on being baptized. We can point to several reasons. First, God had told St. John the Baptist that the One on Whom he saw the Spirit descend was the Anointed One. So, the baptism of our Lord was proof to the Baptist of Who Jesus is.
Second, as we see in the first reading, the Messiah was formed by God and set “as a covenant of the people, a light of the nations.” St. Peter, in the second reading, proclaims “God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears Him and acts uprightly is acceptable to Him.” This new covenant, which we enter into through baptism, is not just for the Israelites, but also for the nations, the Gentiles. In being baptized, Jesus establishes the means for all persons to be inaugurated into the Covenant. As we see above, Jesus Himself is that Covenant.
Moreover, Jesus is the Head of the Mystical Body. The body follows where the Head leads. So Jesus is baptized as the Head so all the members of the body can be incorporated into Him through a similar baptism. We recall the words of St. Paul when he said of Jesus “He Who knew no sin became sin.” Jesus never sinned, but He took on our sins. On the Cross, Jesus destroyed sin and the enmity that kept us from union with God; through baptism He gave us the means for the forgiveness of sin.
Jesus is also the Bridegroom of the Church, His Bride. This is very important in the context of our Lord’s baptism because St. Paul says “Jesus loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word…” When did Jesus wash the Church with water? One could look at the water that came forth from His Heart on the Cross which symbolizes baptism. But in marriage the two are one, so the physical baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin undertaken by the Bridegroom cleanses the Bride spiritually and prepares her to love Him as He loves her: He gave Himself physically on the Cross to establish the Covenant; she will be crucified spiritually to ratify and consummate the Covenant.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.