Sunday, January 11, 2009

Stepping in the place of sinners


As we celebrate this feast of the Baptism of the Lord, I think that it is a feast that naturally begs a question of us: Why would Jesus be baptized?

After all, our theological understanding of the Sacrament of Baptism is that Baptism overcomes the stain of original sin and that it takes us from a place of being born alienated from our God by that same original sin into a state of being again in relationship with Him. Baptism makes us members of the Body of Christ.

Certainly Jesus does not need this. Certainly Jesus wasn't born with the stain of original sin. Certainly Jesus wasn't born in a state of alienation from God. Why would Jesus need the Baptism offered by St. John?

This is a perplexing theological question and there are many decent answers. But, the best response I have ever come across was in the book Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI written in 2007. Let me share a passage with you:

The real novelty is the fact that he - Jesus - wants to be baptized, that he blends into the gray mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan. We have just heard that the confession of sins is a component of Baptism. Baptism itself was a confession of sins and the attempt to put off an old, failed life and to receive a new one. Is that something Jesus could do? How could he confess sins? How could he separate himself from his previous life in order to start a new one? This is a question that Christians could not avoid asking. The dispute between the Baptist and Jesus that Matthew recounts for us was also an expression of the early Christians' own question to Jesus: "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" (Mt. 3.14) Matthew goes on to report for us that "Jesus answered him, 'Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.' Then he consented." (Mt. 3.15)

The act of descending into the waters of this Baptism implies a confession of guilt and a plea for forgiveness in order to make a new beginning. In a world marked by sin, then, this Yes to the entire will of God also expresses solidarity with men, who have incurred guilt but yearn for righteousness. The significance of this event could not fully emerge until it was seen in the light of the Cross and Resurrection. Descending into the water, the candidates for Baptism confess their sin and seek to be rid of their burden of guilt. What did Jesus do in this same situation? Luke, who throughout his Gospel is keenly attentive to Jesus' prayer, and portrays him again and again at prayer - in conversation with the Father - tells us that Jesus was praying while he received Baptism (cf. Luke 3.21). Looking at the events 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. He is, as it were, the true Jonah who said to the crew of the ship, "Take me and throw me into the sea." (Jn.1.12) The whole significance of Jesus' Baptism, the fact that he bears "all righteousness," first comes to light on the Cross. The Baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity, and the voice that calls out "This is my beloved Son" over the baptismal waters is an anticipatory reference to the Resurrection. This also explains why, in his own discourses, Jesus uses the word baptism to refer to his death (cf. Mk. 10.38; Lk. 12.50)

Only from this starting point can we understand Christian Baptism. Jesus' Baptism anticipated his death on the Cross, and the heavenly voice proclaimed an anticipation of the Resurrection. These anticipations have now become reality. John's baptism with water has received its full meaning through the Baptism of Jesus' own life and death. To accept the invitation to be baptized now means to go to the place of Jesus' Baptism. It is to go where he identifies himself with us and to receive there our identification with him. The point where he anticipates death has now become the point where we anticipate rising again with him.

The Baptism that Jesus' disciples have been administering since he spoke those words is an entrance into the Master's own Baptism - into the reality that he anticipated by means of it. That is the way to become a Christian.

May God give you peace.

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