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The Baptism of the Lord: What is Baptism?

jesus-baptismLast week I preached about how the Epiphany was the first of three theophanies (revelatory moments) where the divinity and power of Jesus was made manifest. At one time the Church celebrated them upon three consecutive days (a triduum): the Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord and the Transfiguration. Today, the first two are in close proximity but the Transfiguration is elsewhere in the liturgical year (August 6).

Today also brings Christmas or Epiphanytide to an end. On the Epiphany, Christ the child is honored as the new king, God joining himself to the human family. When he is baptized by John, our Lord is a man beginning his public ministry. But, here too, he is made manifest as the long-promised Messiah, the one who would “increase” just as John would “decrease.” The Holy Spirit appears as a dove and there is the voice from above announcing, “Here is my beloved Son upon whom my favor rests.” It fits with the message of Christmas because while Jesus (the God made man) resembles us externally, his objective is that we might be more like him, internally.

This feast provides a wonderful opportunity to speak about the meaning and importance of baptism. Several years ago I had the privilege to visit Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. There were various caves and much of the old settlement had been excavated. I was taken by these large tubs of stone or rock. Steps led up the sides of them and then more steps down into the tubs. These were ablution baths used by the Jews for ceremonial washings. There were several occasions in the New Testament where such things were mentioned. Remember the men suffering leprosy that were healed by Jesus and told to bathe and show themselves to the priests? Remember the poor man needing healing but there was no one to place him into the pool when the water stirred? Jesus would heal him outright. What John the Baptizer was doing was not something new to the Jews. They were familiar with ceremonial washings where people would beseech God for mercy and healing. But, like their sacrifices, these washings were never able to fully accomplish what they hoped. What drew people to John was that, even according to ancient standards, he was a peculiar character, unkempt and living off the land. There was also a strangely compelling and powerful element to his message of repentance. John’s baptism of people in the Jordan was really a baptism of PREPARATION. He was making a straight path for the Lord— preparing a people— disposing them to receive the one who was coming after him. Notice how his disciples quickly became followers of Jesus.

The second type of baptism was unique to our Lord. The waters of baptism were made holy by the one being baptized. Through the symbolism of a dove, along with the voice, the whole Trinity was present at the scene of Christ’s baptism. Jesus was identified as God’s Son. His baptism was precisely one of REVELATION. Jesus had no sins that needed repentance or forgiveness. Jesus was the one they had long awaited. Jesus’ identity was made manifest.

Turning to the third type of baptism, we recall our Lord’s words at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. He tells his apostles to go out to the entire world and to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” When he spoke about salvation, he insisted that we must be “born again.” While the baptism of Jesus reveals his identity, our baptism CHANGES our identity. We are remade as a new creation, something different than before. Baptism makes us members of Christ’s kingdom. We become brothers and sisters to Jesus, spiritually adopted sons and daughters of the Father. Sin is washed away, both original and personal. We are made holy and living temples of the Holy Spirit. This third baptism makes us into new Christs, molding us into his likeness. This is a baptism of TRANSFORMATION.

We recall this baptism every time we enter a church and cross ourselves with the holy water from the basin at the door.  As members of the divine family or royal household of God, the world needs to see Christ living and ministering through believers. Creatures of God have become sons and daughters. We are given a share in the divine life and abide as a people of faith in the real hope of salvation.

For more on this feast and the mystery of baptism, read Msgr. Charles Pope’s blog entry.

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