(Image: Pietro Perugino, The Baptism of Christ)
Have you ever wondered, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized?” It’s a good question, and one that John the Baptist himself asks. In Matthew’s gospel we read, “John tried to prevent him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me’” (Matthew 3:14). We know from Luke’s gospel that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3). Since Jesus had no sin, why does he go to John to be baptized? What does Jesus’ baptism reveal about his mission and identity? The Catechism of the Catholic Church comes to our aid as we wrestle with these questions.
Let’s consider our first question, “Why does Jesus go to be baptized if he has no sin of which to repent?” In paragraph 536 of the Catechism we read, “The baptism of Jesus is on his part the acceptance and inauguration of his mission as God’s suffering Servant. He allows himself to be numbered among sinners; he is already ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’” Jesus’ act of humble submission to John’s baptism is a sign of his submission and total acceptance of the Father’s mission. We will see this total submission to the will of the Father in its beautiful climax in the garden of Gethsemane later in Jesus’ life. The Catechism is inviting us to view Jesus’ baptism in light of his passion and death.
The Catechism points us to the figure of the suffering Servant as an interpretive key to answer our second question, “What does Jesus’ baptism reveal about his mission and identity?” We find many references to this Servant in the prophet Isaiah. One key chapter is Isaiah 53. In Isaiah 53 we hear that this Servant will: bear our infirmities (v. 4), take our guilt upon himself (v. 6), be like a lamb led to the slaughter (v. 7) even though he has done no wrong (v. 9), and surrender himself to death and be counted among the wicked (v. 12). Now consider Jesus’ choice to be baptized by John in light of these descriptions of the Servant in Isaiah 53. Jesus takes on the identity of the suffering Servant beginning in his baptism. He chooses to be associated with the wicked who come to John for baptism and to take upon himself our guilt.
John the Baptist is the one who first makes this connection between Jesus and the suffering Servant. He explicitly proclaims Jesus as “the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). He makes the connection for his followers that Jesus is the suffering Servant predicted to arrive in Isaiah 53. John, who is filled with the Holy Spirit from birth, has the prophetic insight to understand what took place when he baptized Jesus. He shares this insight with his followers, who leave John the Baptist and begin to follow Jesus at his instruction.
The baptism of Jesus is commonly seen as the beginning of his public ministry in the synoptic gospels. It is in his baptism that Jesus assumes the mission of the suffering Servant who will heal his people through his suffering and death. Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of a journey that will ultimately lead him to the Cross. At his baptism, Jesus sets the tone for his entire ministry and mission. In essence, Jesus is saying, “I’m not afraid of your mess; I came to unite myself to humanity, to take your brokenness upon myself, and to heal you.” Jesus acts on this desire to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) and immerse himself in the messiness of humanity over and over again in the gospels.
If you feel stuck in sin, the messiness of life, or your own brokenness—do not lose hope! Jesus shows us in his baptism that he doesn’t stand aside and watch as sinners struggle toward healing and holiness. Jesus wants to be “baptized” with you in that difficulty, he desires to “immerse himself” in the messiness of your life. It is when we unite our sin, addiction, brokenness, etcetera to Jesus that it can be overcome and healed on the Cross. We have to exercise the humility of John the Baptist and avoid the temptation to push Jesus away. May the Holy Spirit give us the strength to welcome Jesus into the difficult places in our hearts and allow us to experience the transforming love of God as we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord this Sunday.