What is the most important day of your life? Maybe it was the day you were born or the day you got married. Normally we celebrate these life changing events every year. We all celebrate our birthday year after year even though we become less straightforward with how old we are with each passing birthday. Married couples celebrate their anniversary yearly, even if husbands need the occasional reminder. We tend to celebrate the most important days in our life. Here’s a question: do you know the date of your baptism? Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. It is a perfect opportunity to both look at the significance of this event and remind ourselves of the importance of our own baptism.
It can be very difficult to understand why Jesus was baptized. Try to picture this scene for a moment. You are in the desert, beside the river Jordan. You are surrounded on all sides by a great mass of people. One by one each person enters the river and approaches John the Baptist who immerses them into the water. What are these people doing? They have come to accept John’s baptism of repentance. In being baptized they are publically acknowledging that they are sinners. More than this, they are making the choice to change their ways and choose a new path for the future. How can Jesus be among this crowd? How can Jesus, who is without sin, repent? John the Baptist seems to grasp the problem and tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized, saying, “I need to be baptized by you and yet you are coming to me?” At first glance it does not make any sense of Christ to be baptized by John the Baptist.
The Baptism of Jesus makes sense when we begin to see it in the light of the Cross and Resurrection. Many of you will know that a few years ago, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote a wonderful book on Jesus of Nazareth. There he tackled the question of the significance of Jesus’ baptism. He explained it this way:
Looking at the event [of Jesus’ baptism] in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind's guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross.
Simply put, Jesus did not get baptized for Himself but for us. At His baptism, Jesus is embarking on His mission as the “Suffering Servant” who reconciles mankind to God, which we read about in the first letter from the prophet Isaiah. At His baptism, He took our sins on Himself and descended into the water, which is symbolic of His death. Afterwards He came out of the water – a symbol of the resurrection – He left behind our sins in the Jordan. The significance of Jesus’ baptism comes into focus when we view it through the lens of His Cross and Resurrection.
When looked at this way, we better appreciate the fact that the Baptism of Jesus completes Christmas. It is with good reason that today’s feast concludes the Christmas season. Among the Doctors of the Church there is a famous expression used to describe the purpose of the Incarnation that says: “God became man to make men like God”. St. Thomas Aquinas expressed it this way:
The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.
The first part of this phrase, which speaks about God assuming our human nature, happened with the conception and later birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The second part of the phrase, which speaks about us becoming like God, was made possible in large part by the Baptism of Jesus. Because Jesus was baptized, our own baptism has force and power. As one ancient theologian wrote:
For when the Saviour is washed all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. (St. Maximus of Turin)
Our baptism is precisely the moment in our life when we “become like God”. At our baptism:
- We are grafted onto Jesus Christ
- We are filled with grace, the very life of God
- We receive the gift of the Holy Spirit
- We become forever a beloved Son or Daughter of God
God became man so that man could become like God. The baptism of Jesus is like the completion of Christmas.
Because our baptism is such a life-changing event, it is something that we should remember and celebrate. We all tend to celebrate well a baptism on the actual day of the event. Baptisms are usually accompanied by a big party and everybody gets dressed up – particularly the person getting baptized. A few years ago I spent some time in Tijuana, Mexico. In the chapels that I would visit, the people always had such beautiful celebrations for baptism, even though they did not have much money. In particular I remember vividly how one young boy was dressed at his baptism. He was of course dressed all in white, but his clothes were remarkable. He wore a small white tuxedo, complete with bow-tie. On the back of his tuxedo was embroidered in gold the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He was even wearing white shoes with a silver decal of the Holy Spirit on them. The parents of this young boy definitely realized that something important was happening to their son at his baptism. Though we celebrate baptism on the day of the event, most of us probably do not remember and celebrate our own baptism as we would our birthday or wedding anniversary. I admit that while preparing this homily, I had to look up the day that I was baptized. Pope Francis has encouraged us to remember our baptism day and celebrate it each year. If we don’t, he said “we end up considering it merely as an event that took place in the past – and not even by our will, but rather by that of our parents.” Our baptism was one of the most important days of our life, it is the day that we became forever a beloved son or daughter or God. This is something we need to remember and celebrate.
Today, as is the custom of the Popes on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, Pope Francis will baptize several children in the Sistine Chapel. Our own baptism, though not in such an incredible setting, is no less important. Today, I challenge each of us to follow the advice of Pope Francis by trying to celebrate in some way each year the day of our baptism. If you don’t know this day, find it out and write it in your calendar. We should never forget this life-changing day in which we were grafted onto Jesus and forever became a beloved son or daughter of God.