The Baptism of Our Lord has long been celebrated within the Catholic community. But for many centuries its observance was shared on the feast of the Epiphany with the arrival of the Magi at Bethlehem and the celebration of the wedding feast at Cana. Since the visit of the Magi had, in the Western world, popularly overshadowed the events at the Jordan and at Cana, Pope Pius XII instituted in 1955 a separate liturgical commemoration of Christ’s Baptism. Before that the Catholic calendar had no separate feast to honor the Baptism of the Lord. Revising the calendar five years later, Pope John XXIII made January 13th the feast of the Commemoration of the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then, a few years later, Pope Paul VI set its date as the first Sunday after January 6, as it is observed today.
So for centuries, three special events in the life of Christ were ranked as epiphanies, manifestations, displays, of Christ’s purpose and ministry. At Bethlehem Jesus manifested himself to the Gentile world represented by the visitors from the East. At Cana, Jesus began to display himself to the infant Church: as St. John notes, “…and his disciples began to believe in him.” Accordingly, on the occasion of his baptism, Jesus once again announces himself, this time on several levels.
Certainly Jesus Christ had no personal need of the ritual baptism of John or the sacramental baptism of the Church. But Jesus willingly and publically accepted the baptism of John for several revelatory reasons. Jesus’ acceptance of John’s baptism was a tribute to John himself. Jesus publically acknowledged the merit of John’s preliminary work. Jesus’ baptism was a pat on the back for John, a tribute to the Baptist’s dedication, a salute to his preparatory ministry.
Jesus’ openness to accept the baptism of John at the river bank was also a revelation about sin. Recall that the baptism of John was a ceremony of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” For the crowds that flocked to Jordan’s bank John’s baptism was an act of contrition, an admission of sinfulness, an act of humiliation before God and the community. Jesus’ willingness to accept John’s humbling bath was an acknowledgment of the sinful state of mankind and, even more importantly, Jesus’ willingness to identify with mankind’s sinful state. Jesus was being frank with the people of his day and with every later generation. Sin happens; evil occurs; wickedness exists. The public recognition of humanity’s fallen state by Jesus was a graphic invitation to every believer to examine his or her conscience and to embrace a firm purpose of amendment. Jesus was not soft-peddling his redeeming ministry; he came to remind the world that salvation begins with an admission of sin. “Repent and believe in the Good News,” Jesus himself would resoundingly preach.
But an admission of sin by the believer is quickly and joyfully followed by plenteous mercy from God. The water that flowed from the hand of John onto the brow of Jesus anticipated the sanctifying waters that would flow from the baptismal fonts of Christianity’s many churches. As the Jordan River contrasted with the sometimes grim landscape of sandy and rocky Judea, so God’s plentiful and lavish graces bestowed through the Church’s baptismal bath offer a relief from the decadence and depravity offered by the world. St. Paul advises, “When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”
As Jesus emerged from the Jordan’s waters, “heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from Heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” This explicit depiction of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit at a single event on a single page of Holy Scripture is exceptional. After all, the Holy Trinity was a radical departure from Jewish notions about God. The Divine dove and the Divine voice were indeed an epiphany, a literal bolt from the blue! Here Jesus Christ is physically, audibly, and visibly celebrated as the Divine Son of the Divine Father. Revelation knows no bolder statement. Later creeds would simply swell the basic truth of this epiphany: Jesus is Lord!