Isaiah 55:1–11; 1 John 5:1–9; Mark 1:7–11
Have you ever had the experience of having someone you greatly admire coming up to you and telling you how much they admire you? Someone whose opinion and judgment you hold in great esteem, who has just told you how much they think of and esteem you? That’s a rather unsettling experience in some ways. I’ve had that happen a few times, and a number of thoughts sometimes run through my head.
The first and foremost thought is that if they really knew me, they wouldn’t think so highly of me. This is an easy trap to fall into, since I know all of my deepest secrets and know just how unworthy I am of esteem (at least, from my perspective). I think all of us are prone to this kind of thinking just a bit. My second thought is about that individual, about how I esteem them and how astounding it is that they think the same of me. Sometimes I start to wonder whether their judgment is all I thought it was.
I imagine John the Baptist felt something similar when Jesus came to him to be baptized. In this gospel account, he has just finished telling the Pharisees and Sadducees that he is unworthy to loosen the sandal of the one who follows. In the very next scene, he’s actually baptizing that very person he was sent to announce. In fact, in Matthew’s account, John says to Jesus, “I should be baptized by you, but you are coming to me?” John was astounded that this one who was so much greater would stoop to let himself be baptized by someone like John.
Yet that is the essence of God’s plan. He sent His son here not simply to make it all better, but to live among us and to suffer with us all of the things that we brought on ourselves. That is the amazing thing about the incarnation—not that God saved us, but how He chose to do it. And He does it through physical means. He uses our weak human form to reach into the world and effect grace. We often lose sight of that—that grace comes to us through material things. We wouldn’t know God except for our encounter with material things. We wouldn’t know the fullness of revelation, Jesus Christ Himself, unless He came to us as man. That is the beauty and the mystery of the incarnation.
All of our sacraments require material things—some proper matter used to effect the grace of the sacrament. A sacrament is a visible and material sign, instituted by Christ, that effects invisible grace (repeat). That is the basic definition of a sacrament. And sacraments have four elements: matter, form, proper ministers, and proper recipients.
In baptism, the necessary matter is water. You cannot have a valid baptism without water. You cannot baptize in beer or grape soda. We must use water.
Now, water might seem to be an arbitrary choice, but it’s such a basic requirement for life and such a common image for purification that it truly is the most obvious option. God even gave us reminders throughout the Old Testament to reaffirm the necessity of water for our purification or rebirth, even if we don’t recognize it immediately.
- In Genesis 1, the breath of God moves across the water to sanctify it, and God’s Word—His Son—brings about all creation from the water and it is good.
- Later in Genesis, Noah and his family pass through the deluge through a water barrier in an ark and into a world that is cleansed of evil. So we have another crossing of a water barrier.
- In Exodus, Moses is placed in the Nile in a miniature ark made of reeds. The word in Exodus (tevat) is actually the same word as the word for ark in the story of Noah. Moses eventually leads the People of Israel out of slavery across the Red Sea—a water barrier.
- In Deuteronomy, Joshua leads the people with the Ark of the Covenant across the Jordan river—a water barrier—to the promised land.
In the first event, all creation begins with the sanctification of the water and separation from it. In each of the subsequent events, crossing a water barrier signifies a rebirth, a new creation.
Those were our Old Testament reminders that God had a plan, and those baptismal events in the Old Testament point forward to Jesus, just as everything in scripture ultimately points to Jesus. We recollect these events in our baptismal rite to recall that this model has always been part of God’s plan.
You might have noticed that many of these baptismal images included two common signs: water and the ark. We also celebrated the most important ark of all on Thursday last week—Mary, the Mother of God, that God Bearer or Theotokos, ark of the New Covenant.
And then Jesus Himself comes. Now, His baptism isn’t really like ours. He has no need of sanctification through baptism. He’s following the tradition of the Jews who would regularly immerse themselves as part of their purification rites. Some Early Church Fathers also taught that in Jesus’ baptism, the waters are sanctified for the Sacrament of Baptism (again in the presence of the Holy Trinity as in Genesis 1). His baptism is a sign to us: a sign of His obedience under the Jewish Law, but it is also a sign to signal the way—a sign that simply says, “Follow me.”
Follow Him to what exactly?
Mark’s story has a hint. Immediately after Jesus is baptized, he is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, or into the desert. Recall that both Moses and Joshua move from the desert across a water barrier, and toward or into the Promised Land. There is a sense of movement with the stories of Moses and Joshua of the people being led from oppression into freedom. The movement in the baptism story of Jesus is exactly the opposite. He enters the water barrier and is baptized, and then he goes out into the desert for 40 days. It represents his willingness to come here and take on the very evils that we suffer because of man’s original disobedience. He crosses the water barrier to join us, and we cross the water barrier in baptism to join Him in return.
St. Paul tells us that we are baptized into Christ’s death. We join Him in His death so that we can be reborn into new life. So every baptism represents a dying to self and rebirth to new life in Christ.
Baptism begins our life in Christ and joins us to his body, the Church. It cleanses us of sin: both original and personal. And most of all, it makes us adopted sons and daughters of God. We do it because Christ did it before us. In baptism, we follow him so that we can fulfill all righteousness, through God’s grace.
It’s fitting for baptism to be God’s instrument for our sanctification. He has given us these signs in scripture, for certain, but He also planted a reminder of redemption in our very being. Our entrance into this world, through pregnancy and child birth is through a water barrier. Every image we have of rebirth is modeled after our first birth.
We as Catholics are people of the Incarnation—of the embodiment of God. Our experience of God is in the world around us, so baptism takes this form to remind us of our rebirth as God’s children. When we are baptized, God looks down on us and says, “This is my beloved son—my beloved daughter—with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus came down to share our lot, to live with us and experience life with us—and ultimately to give us an example. By following him in baptism, we share His divine life, and that was the reason for revelation and for His incarnation. God loves us and does not give up on us regardless of how far we stray. He came here to lead us back, and all we have to do is follow.