Having gone on almost non-stop since Halloween, Christmas has finally fizzled out, making the Church’s insistence on still celebrating the Lord’s Epiphany seem at best like some post-Christmas afterthought. But, if we shift gears and allow ourselves to think the way the Church thinks about these things, then we see that today’s remembrance of Jesus’ baptism is actually meant as the culmination of the whole Advent-Christmas season, the event Advent and Christmas have been leading up to.
Today the Church fast-forwards from Bethlehem to an adult Jesus, about to begin his public life, the work he came into the world to do, the long-term point of the Christmas story.
Jesus’ baptism by John is mentioned in three of the four gospels and alluded to in the fourth. It was also mentioned by Peter in the Acts of the Apostles on the occasion of the baptism of the first pagan converts, Cornelius, the Roman soldier, and his household. So it was obviously well remembered and had obviously left an impression. Peter treats Jesus’ baptism as the starting-point of the Jesus story – how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, after which Jesus went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him [Acts 10:38].
John’s baptism had been a ritual of repentance, dramatizing one’s need for conversion and one’s willingness to start anew, as their ancestors had when they had first passed through the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. Baptized by John, Jesus blended into the mass of anonymous sinners that we are. Baptized as one of us, Jesus joined us - which was, of course, the point of his becoming human and being born in the first place.
Jesus joined us in the water, but when he came up from the water, we are told, behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” [Matthew 3:16-17].
Not just Jesus alone but the whole Trinity joined in to reveal who Jesus is. Jesus began his work in the world by being officially identified by his Father as his Son, anointed, as Saint Peter put it, with the Holy Spirit and power, thus setting the stage for the rest of the story of Jesus life and mission in our world.
And not just Jesus’ story, but ours too! Not Jesus’s life and mission, but ours too! Thanks to Jesus, we too – like Cornelius – have become acceptable to God, for Jesus has shared the Holy Spirit with us. Through his gift of the Holy Spirit, we have been empowered to profess our faith in Jesus as God’s Son and to join ourselves with him so as to share in his relationship with his Father. Jesus’ baptism anticipates the baptism that elevates each of us to a new relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit and empowers us to continue Christ’s life and mission in our world through our membership in his Church.
(Photo: The Baptism of Christ, c. 1500, by Giovanni Bellini, Santa Corona, Vicenza, Italy)