Sunday January 11, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Baptism of the Lord
Reading I (Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7) Reading II (Acts 10:34-38)
Gospel (St. Luke 3:15-16, 21-22)
Today we celebrate the solemnity of the Baptism of Our Lord, and the great question that people would have is: Why was Jesus baptized? After all, John was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin and Our Lord had absolutely no need to repent because He had no sin. So if that baptism was for the forgiveness of sin, why did He get baptized? Well, some of the saints tell us that He was baptized in order to make holy the waters of baptism so that all of us who would be baptized would already have the waters prepared so when we were baptized the holiness of the water (because of Our Lord) would remove our sins. But I think, too, we can look beyond that. Jesus, as we know, will never ask us to do anything that He Himself was not willing to do. If He is going to ask us, for instance, to take up our cross, He was going to do it first. If He is going to ask us to pray, He was going to do it first. If He is going to ask us to go out into the desert and suffer, He was going to do it first. He is going to ask us to be baptized, and so He, as the leader in the work of salvation, is going to make clear that this is the way by doing it Himself. But still we would ask, “Why? It is one thing to precede us, to lead us, to give us good example and so on, but it was not necessary.” But remember what Saint John the Baptist said when he objected to Our Lord, and Jesus tells him that it is to fulfill all righteousness. Now what exactly is meant by that? I think if we look at a couple of other points in Scripture perhaps we can begin to understand.
First of all, we see in the first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, chapter 42 (and we see the exact same thing come up in chapter 49), that God says of His servant, who will be the Messiah some 700 years later, “I will make you a covenant to the people,” in fact, to be a covenant to the nations. In other words, when the pagan peoples would become Christian, when they would be baptized into Jesus Christ, they would be baptized into the covenant and the covenant is Jesus Christ. Remember that God made a covenant with Abraham; and the people, when they were circumcised into that covenant, would become children of Abraham by faith. God did not make a covenant with Jesus – Jesus is the covenant – and we enter into that covenant through baptism. So part of His being baptized is to forge that covenant, but it is not complete just in that in Our Lord’s life.
If we look elsewhere in Scripture, we see some other indicators of why Our Lord would need to be baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness. First of all, considering that Our Lord would not ask anything of us that He Himself was not willing to do, He knows what is going to be required of us through baptism, so immediately after He is baptized He goes off to the desert and He is tempted by Satan. Each one of us, of course, is going to be tempted by Satan throughout our lives, and it is in a special way because we are members of Christ, because we are baptized into Jesus, into the covenant of Christ. Satan hates us, and he hates us in the same way that he hated Jesus because we are members of Jesus Christ. We are not just brought into a covenant; we are brought into a Person. At the moment that Jesus was baptized, as Saint Peter makes very clear in the second reading, He was anointed with the Holy Spirit. And that anointing with the Holy Spirit set Him aside as God’s Chosen One so that all of us could see it. He is God from all eternity, so it is not like He became God’s Chosen One at baptism; but rather, that anointing of the Holy Spirit is what prepared Him to begin His public ministry. Each one of us, at the moment that we are baptized, also receives the Holy Spirit so that we can do the work of Christ, so that we will be consecrated to do whatever God chooses for us to do. And being obedient to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we will cooperate to do God’s Will, exactly what Jesus did.
But it goes beyond that as well. For instance, when we consider the feast that we will be celebrating in about two weeks, the Feast of the Presentation, we will hear from Saint Luke’s Gospel a very odd statement. It will say, “When it came time for their purification, the parents brought the child up to Jerusalem.” They did not need to be purified. By Jewish law, the mother needed to be purified, but Our Lady had no need to be purified, Saint Joseph had no need to be purified, and Jesus had no need to be purified, so who is he talking about? He is talking about Jerusalem, the city. And so as Our Lady, the virgin daughter of Jerusalem, goes up and goes through all of the purification rites of the Jewish people, she is doing it not for herself but for the city and for the people. She is the representative of the people in that way. So too, when Our Lord is presented in the temple, in one person all of Israel and all who will be part of the New Israel is being presented at the same time. It is this insight that helps us to begin to understand why Our Lord needed to be baptized.
And Saint Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians, tells us that Jesus became sin for us. He who knew not sin became sin for us. Now we come to the heart of the matter of why He needed to be baptized. The fascinating thing of our baptism is that we become members of Jesus Christ and, therefore, Jesus takes us on to Himself; and in taking us to Himself, He has also taken our sin to Himself. Not that He ever sinned or was ever guilty of sin in any way, shape, or form, but He has taken the responsibility for our sins to His own self; and because He became sin for us, the way to remove sin is through baptism. But sin has its consequences. We know that when we are baptized Original Sin is removed, and if one is baptized later on in life, every single sin that person has ever committed will also be removed, but there are consequences to sin. So too in the Garden, there were consequences that were meted out to Adam and Eve. Saint Paul goes on in his Letter to the Galatians and he tells us that Jesus took on the curse, because he reminds us that Scripture says, “Cursed is anyone who is hanged upon a tree.” He became the curse for us. So what we see is that in baptism all sin is removed; and in the Crucifixion, the curse, the punishment for sin is removed as well. Saint Paul tells us in his Letter to the Hebrews that it was fitting that God, for Whom and through Whom all things were made, would make our leader in the work of salvation perfect through suffering.
If Jesus was baptized so that our sins could be forgiven and if He went to the Cross so that the curse could be removed and we could be made perfect, we understand now why He needed to be baptized. It was not for Him, it was for us. Just as Our Lady being presented in the temple for her purification purified Jerusalem, so too Our Lord being baptized, having taken on all sin, entered into the waters of the Jordan and accepted the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Saint Paul, in his Letter to the Colossians, says of himself, “I make up in my body what is lacking in the suffering of Christ for the sake of His Body the Church.” In other words, on the Cross Jesus took on everything necessary for the salvation of the human race, but He left a little bit of the work for us to do. When He was baptized in the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, He offered the repentance for us, He accepted the forgiveness of sin for us, but He left a bit for us to do as well. He is not simply going to take it all away for us; but rather, because He upholds our human dignity, He leaves some of the work for us that we too would need to be baptized so that sin would be forgiven in our own personal lives, that we too would have to go out into the desert and be tempted by Satan in order to grow in virtue – Jesus did not need to grow in virtue, He did not need to be tempted, but He underwent that for us – and that we too would do exactly what He said: to take up our cross and to follow Him so that we would be crucified with Him, to be “crucified to the world”, as Saint Paul tells the Galatians, so that it will no longer be us who lives but Christ who lives in us.
You see that wonderful exchange: that we live in Christ through baptism and He lives in us when we are willing to be crucified with Him. And so as we are baptized into Christ, He is baptized for us. As we are crucified with Christ, it is because He was crucified for us. We see that everything He did we are asked to do as well; and everything that can be said of Him, by extension, can be applied to us. At the moment of His baptism, the heavens were opened and the voice of the Father was heard: “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.” And the Holy Spirit came to rest upon Him. At the moment that you were baptized, God spoke the exact same words: “You are My beloved son (or My beloved daughter); in you I am well pleased.” And God sent His Holy Spirit with His sevenfold gifts to fill your heart on that day and to anoint you with the Holy Spirit to carry on the work of Christ, to do the Will of God, to be consecrated in this life so that you would be able to withstand the temptations of Satan that Jesus has already taken on for you and has left a little sliver of it for each one of us. He has anointed you with the Holy Spirit so that you would have the grace to take up your cross, to share in the suffering of Christ for the sake of His Body the Church, to do our little part in carrying the Cross to Calvary and in being crucified with Him. It is to be crucified, first of all, to this world, to die to this world so that we will live with Christ; it is to die to the self, to be crucified to all of the sensual desires and all of the materialism; and, ultimately, it is to enter into death with Him so that we can enter into the fullness of life – precisely the promise of baptism – where Saint Paul tells the Romans, “When you were baptized, you were baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Christ.” What happens at the moment of baptism in a spiritual way must take place physically in the lives of each one of us so that we live the life of Christ in this world, to be crucified with Christ, to die with Him after we have suffered with Him, so that we will rise to new and glorious and everlasting life with Him.
If this is the pattern for the life of each one of us, it is so only because Our Lord Himself is the first one to have done it. He was baptized so that sin could be forgiven and so that we could be baptized into Him. He was tempted so that we would be strengthened to face temptation and that we would be tempted with Him. He took up His Cross so that we would take up ours. He was crucified so that we would be crucified with Him. He rose from the dead so that we too will rise from the dead. All of this is already encompassed in baptism. It has already happened for each one of us in its fullness in a spiritual way; now it must happen for each one of us in its fullness in a physical way as we live it out in our day-to-day lives. The wonderful thing is that none of us will be able to say, “You are asking too much of me. It’s not fair. Why should I have to do this?” because He has already done it. He is the leader in the work of salvation, and where He has gone we hope to follow. But it is exactly as Saint Peter tells us, “He has left us an example of suffering so that we will walk in His footsteps,” starting with baptism and going all the way through life to Calvary where we will be crucified with Him so that we can rise with Him and live with Him forever.
That is what baptism is about. It sets us on that path, it incorporates us into the covenant, and then we need to live out what that covenant means in our day-to-day lives. But Jesus shows us the way. That is why He was baptized: so that we would understand what baptism would mean for each one of us, that we would understand the fullness of what it means by the way we live our lives. And so as we look at Jesus and begin to understand what His baptism meant for Him and what it means for us, now it is for us to renew our own baptismal vows, to reject Satan and all his empty works and all his empty promises, to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ and to live the life that we promised, which is the life of Christ, which is to take up our cross and follow Him everyday.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.