The Water, the Spirit, and the Son of Man

Piero della Francesca, “The Baptism of Christ” (detail), c. 1450s, public domain.

By Chris Sparks

On Monday, Jan. 9, we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

Now it may be puzzling to some folks why exactly Jesus was baptized. The Son of the Father is innocent, pure, perfect, a spotless lamb, a perfect offering. The Holy One of God is already holy, already alive with divinity. He has been so from all eternity, and will be so to all eternity.

The answer? Jesus didn't need Baptism; Baptism needed Jesus.

Saint Maximus of Turin tells us, "Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water."

By submitting Himself to Baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, Christ sanctified the waters of the earth and opened them up to being used in Christian Baptism.

Plunge into Creation
In a similar way, His plunge into creation, His descent from Heaven into incarnate flesh, into the womb of the Blessed Mother, was a baptism of sorts. He accepted that, as well, even though He did not need it to save us. He became one of us, bearing our human nature, though He is God. He accepted the descent into humanity, the descent into a life among us, the descent even of submission to human authorities, to parents, to earthly rulers, to the system of law and prophets that He'd given His own people, Israel. He accepted to be baptized into all of humanity, like us in all things except sin (see Heb 4:15).

And all of this happened by God's own initiative. Just as St. John the Baptist recognizes, we are "not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals" (Lk 3:16). Jesus was not drawn down from Heaven by our exceptional righteousness; we are only righteous by His grace and gift. Jesus was not compelled to be baptized by some human judge or earthly authority; He came willingly, humbly, joining the long line of sinners who had heard His cousin John's preaching and gone to the Jordan to embrace an external sign of their repentance. And by Christ's humility, the grace of Baptism was opened up to us all.

Christ came to bring us back to the Father with Him. He came to save, not to judge. He came to make it possible for His creatures to share in His eternal, divine life, for the world had fallen and, on its own, could not get back up again.

Generosity of God
The generosity of God is extravagant, and incomprehensible to the devils in hell. They are all clutching and clawing after power. God is lavishing love and life on all of creation, giving it away, pouring Himself out utterly, generously, for that's who He is. To be like God is to be generous after the same fashion, in all virtue and wisdom, of course, but in all open-handedness, as well.

We see that open-handedness at the Baptism of the Lord. We see the heavens open, and the Spirit come down upon the Son of Man like a dove, and know that we also may receive the water and the Spirit; we also may turn again to God in repentance, and live forever, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.



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