This weekend’s liturgical feast is a veritable theological graduate course, a catechetical gold mine. There are major themes galore, ranging from the nature of John the Baptist’s baptism/water cleansing to the personal encounter of Jesus with his Father and the Spirit, his embrace of the Messianic mission, and the relationship of Jesus’ baptism to our own baptism and its impact upon us. Most priests of my experience tend to preach on the baptismal aspect of this feast and call for their listeners to intensify their efforts to live lives reflective of their baptisms. This is not an incorrect interpretation, but it does leave a lot on the table [though I see in today’s morning news that Pope Francis baptized 30 babies in the Sistine Chapel today.]
Any responsible parent or catechist [or blogger] who teaches as a minister of the Church must address the rather common misconception among Catholics that Jesus did not need to be baptized because, being God, he did not have original sin nor any other moral weaknesses requiring a ceremonial act of forgiveness. This misunderstanding arises from several sources, one being the very ancient heresy of Monophysitism, described in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as the belief that Jesus possessed only a divine nature, and not a human one as well. This interpretation of Jesus’ being was condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. Chalcedon taught that Jesus fully possessed divine and human natures in one operational personality.
Chalcedon affirms what the New Testament describes of Jesus, a man fully immersed in human experience, bound by the limitations of space and time, capable of being surprised moved by deep emotions. And very much to the matter of his baptism, Jesus was capable--like all humans--of choice, including moral ones. He was not play-acting in the Garden of Olives on the night before his death, when he agonized with his Father, “let this cup pass away from me.” Jesus’ embrace of the cup, i.e., his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death, was perfect obedience to his Father, and the laying down of his life a conscience-motivated expression of love for humanity. This human act of love on the part of Christ was an exercise of profound faith. Humans do not know what happens after death, but God invites to belief, not scientific certainty. To deny the human operation of Jesus’ conscience is a denial of the basic doctrine of the Incarnation, God become man. Moral choice is the heart of Jesus’ life.
In reflecting upon the Baptism of the Lord, we can safely rule out the “original sin problem.” The term was unknown in Jewish and Christian circles until St. Augustine developed the concept in the fifth century A.D. and brought its application to Christian sacramental life with greater emphasis upon such things as the urgency of Christian baptism for infants. John the Baptist addressed his preaching and his invitation to baptism to adults. The best insight into John’s baptism and intentions is probably found in Luke 3. Here John is described as baptizing to forgive sins of all sorts, as we see his specific admonitions to the more affluent gentry regarding their responsibilities to the poor, and to soldiers and tax collectors on the abuse of civil office. His harshest words are reserved for those who feel that their bloodline to Abraham alone is enough to justify them. Luke describes the Baptist as an apocalyptic preacher calling forth a turn in personal conduct in preparation for a mightier one to come, an event of joy for the righteous [the good wheat] and of terror for the man of sinful habits [the chaff to be burned.]
Into John’s significant throng of converting souls comes Jesus. The Gospels concur that Jesus came to John and was baptized of his own initiative. One wonders why now, given that the Gospels place his age at around 30. In Jesus’ day, 30 was well into life, at the very least middle aged. If Scripture scholar Father John Meier is correct, Jesus worked in a lucrative profession; carpenters framed new homes, installing trusses. As a craftsman, he like other professionals may have performed work at the service of the Roman government, such as an emperor’s summer palace at Sepphoris constructed during Jesus’ lifetime just four miles from Nazareth.
It is also true that even small towns in Israel provided good religious education to Jewish boys, and one can assume that Jesus lived devoutly and thoughtfully in his Jewish milieu during his “lost years” between infancy and midlife. So again, what did Jesus find enchanting and/or challenging in the firebrand preaching of John, who lived at the very edges of contemporary Jewish vision? We might find a clue from the later New Testament writings of St. Paul, for example, who describes Christian baptism as the transitional rite into “a new man.” Conversion does not always mean a 180-degree pivot from depravity into sainthood. Conversions occur in the human experience of progressing from the good to the intensively good; from a long-held moral vision to a more intense and acute sensitivity of God’s will.
Perhaps it is here that we can connect with a man whose study, prayer, and grace have brought him to a thirst to embrace a unique life with God. The Gospels seem to agree on two points here:  Jesus was still coming to grips with his conversion identity, as his next move after baptism was a prolonged retreat into the desert, and  John was imprisoned and executed shortly after this baptism; Jesus did not begin to preach until John was silenced. Jesus’ willingness to stand with his people—fellow Jews—may have been a motivator for him to be baptized with them; one theologian compares the visual of Jesus in the Jordan with his fellow believers to the picture of Moses leading his people through the Red Sea. Possibly so. In this weekend’s account from Matthew, John is highly reluctant to baptize Jesus due to his perception of Jesus’ identity and/or virtue. Jesus in turn replies that his own baptism rite should be just the same as everybody else’s, “for the sake of righteousness.”
There is, however, a paradox in the narratives of the baptismal rites that come down to us. The baptism was very personal to Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find hints that the crowd watched Jesus’ baptism or noticed anything unusual about it. Neither Jesus nor the crowds saw a dove [the Spirit descended “like a dove’] nor did anyone hear anything or see anything except Jesus. After his baptism [and prayer!] the Spirit of God—a pregnant Old Testament term applied to the great prophets of Israel—descended upon him and Jesus hears from the heavens, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” From the Scripture texts, we can surmise that Jesus received a personal affirmation of God’s pleasure with the roads Jesus had traveled those 30 years to reach this point, and the course of conversion Jesus is about to choose.
Looking back now from 2020 with 20-20 vision, the inevitable pastoral question becomes the relationship of Jesus’ baptism to today’s baptismal sacramental event we celebrate in our churches. Two points I would make. First, our baptismal catechesis must veer away from the Augustinian preoccupation with original sin with greater emphasis on the direction of a life yet lived. Second, the term “conversion” needs a broader definition. It is not limited to the official renunciation of sinful acts, though that may be part of the process. Better, consider conversion as a moral turn of the conscience from the good to the better, in communion with Jesus in the Jordan, an experience of the Spirit’s power and the Father’s embrace.
On My Mind