“I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” The words of John the Baptist to Christ in Matthew’s Gospel are worth pondering. Why would Jesus need to be baptized? Being the Son of God, why be troubled at all about the ritual of baptism, especially by a man like John the Baptist?
It is easy to fall into error over this question. Some people have concluded that since Jesus underwent baptism, he must have been in need of something, and so Christ’s baptism was the time when God the Father made Jesus divine. This heresy has been called Adoptionism, since it contends that Christ’s baptism was the time when God the Father ‘adopted’ Jesus and he ‘really’ became divine.
But what, then, are the real reasons that Jesus desired to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan? One reason is that Jesus was not baptized to be cleansed himself, but to cleanse others. Though he was not a sinner himself, Christ took on our sinful nature and the likeness of sinful flesh when he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary. Now, during his baptism, the old man of our sinful nature was plunged below the waters so that we might grow into the full stature of adopted sons of God. In Christ’s descent into the Jordan River, the waters are given the virtue of baptism, and our frail nature is restored.
Another reason is so that Christ could lay a path that all his disciples could imitate. In response to John the Baptist’s question, Christ replies that his own baptism is fitting “to fulfill all righteousness.” In commenting on this verse, St. Ambrose states that true righteousness is to “do first yourself what you wish another to do, and so encourage others by your example.” By entering into the waters of the Jordan, Christ gives an example to us in humility and obedience to his Father in heaven. This obedience, which is fulfilled completely in Christ’s passion, is the example which every Christian is called to follow.
The baptism of Jesus marks the beginning of Christ’s ministry in Galilee and Judah, and is the fulfillment of God’s promise to save mankind. But it is fitting that Christ’s ministry should begin immediately after his baptism in the Jordan River. As St. Ambrose noted, where Elijah divided the river of the Jordan with his mantle of old, so now Christ, in these same waters, will make all things new by separating the plague of sin from our human nature. May we thank God for our own baptism, and encourage others to be cleansed from sin in the water that was first cleansed by the pure, spotless, and saving flesh of Christ.
Image: Andrew Wyeth, The Carry