Editor’s note: This is the third post in a series commenting on the first words of Christ as presented in the Gospels.
Let it be so for now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. (Mt 3:15)
In the beginning of the Old Testament, God’s first recorded words are “let there be. . .” The whole cosmos leaps into creation, delighting to fulfill His words. Eventually, though, things go horribly wrong when man thinks he knows better and disobeys God’s words. After that, an angel with a fiery sword makes a one-way path for man—leading him out of paradise. In the beginning of the New Testament, we hear God addressing a different “let it be” to a very different man, concerning another road—the road back to God.
These first words of Jesus respond to John the Baptist, who balked when Jesus approached him asking to be baptized. John, perhaps too conscious of his own fallen humanity, cannot fathom what Jesus (who is sinless) would ever want with the baptism of repentance that John has to offer. Though based on the truth of Jesus’s sinlessness and perfect holiness, and even if well-intended, John sets up a would-be roadblock because he cannot understand Jesus’s request. The Baptist does not disobey the Lord, but his hasty conclusions would have “prevented” Jesus from inaugurating His Way for man back to God. When Jesus asks John to baptize Him, He is intending to open a sacramental path to salvation, beginning with John’s specialty—baptism.
John did not imagine how Jesus could infuse baptism with new power. For John’s baptism invited people to confess their sins and have contrition for them, but Jesus would give baptism the power to actually wipe those sins away. In submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus sanctifies baptism, and indeed all of physical creation—making this cleansing the means for us to resemble Him. In Jesus’s baptism, He re-orders creation to harmony with Himself, as it was once subjected to the sinless Adam’s care at the dawn of creation. In the sacrament of baptism, we too are conformed to the sinless Christ. Our humanity, once cleansed from sin, resembles His sinless and perfect humanity (the only kind that is worthy to coexist with God).
Jesus’s first recorded words in St. Matthew’s Gospel are thus a gracious, gentle correction: “Let it be so for now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is first of all reminding John that He knows what He is doing. His gentleness with John reassures us that it’s OK to set out to follow Christ even though we may not yet understand fully the route. After all, He holds the roadmap. Indeed, in vital sacraments like baptism, as in the minutiae of everyday responsibilities, Jesus does all the “heavy lifting” for us. He comes right to where we are, extending a personalized path of salvation from where we stand all the way to a mansion prepared in His Father’s House. These first words of His merely bid us to keep it clear, to “let it be” and use it.
Jesus’s “let it be” conveys the sense of “setting aside” our preconceived notions—the mountains and valleys of an idiosyncratic landscape—about how we expect God to arrive with salvation. Jesus challenges John (and us) to put into action the Baptist’s own message—to make a highway for Christ to come, leveling the mountains and filling up the valleys of whatever stands in the way of God coming to us as He sees fit (which is often very different from what we are imagining for ourselves). If we meet His offer with obedience, the Lord will direct us in the mysterious and hidden ways of the Spirit. We need only to love Him, keep faithful in prayer, and try to collaborate with Him in all things. We may not recognize how exactly God’s plan is constructed, but we will be able to see our progress as we travel along.
Image: Mihael Grmek, Panorama of the Jelovica plateau with the Church of Sts. Primus and Felician (used with permission)