A Strange Feast
Baptism of the Lord. fr Dominic Ryan helps us to see the significance of Jesus’ baptism by John.
The feast of the baptism of the Lord marks the end of the liturgical season of Christmas. In many ways, though, it’s a rather strange way to end the Christmas season; indeed, it’s a rather strange feast full stop! And I say this because if we identify the key things which occur when one of us is baptised and ask whether they also occurred in Jesus’s baptism then we discover that they didn’t and that they couldn’t have.
Just think about it. When we’re baptised we’re healed from the guilt of original sin and we’re incorporated into the Church. Did any of this happen to Christ? No. Jesus didn’t suffer from original sin so he didn’t need to be healed from it, and Jesus hadn’t yet founded the Church so he couldn’t be incorporated into it. And if that’s not enough John’s baptism- the baptism Jesus received- wasn’t able to forgive sin and to incorporate people into the Church anyway. Those things only became possible after Christ’s death and resurrection. So not only did Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John not have the same effects as our baptism did, but nor could it have had so what’s going on in this feast and how does it relate to the end of Christmastide?
Of course, just because Jesus’s baptism didn’t heal him from the guilt of original sin or incorporate him into the church that’s not to say it wasn’t connected to those aims. God came into the world in Christ to redeem human beings from sin. And broadly speaking to achieve this aim three conditions had to be met: firstly, the power to redeem humans had to be present, secondly the means to redeem human beings had to be established and thirdly human beings had to be encouraged to avail of those means.
Take the first condition. Jesus was God so there’s no question of him lacking the power to redeem human beings. As to the means of redemption, human beings have to share in the salvific death of Christ, which is accomplished most effectively through baptism and incorporation into the Church. That’s not to say after baptism we can do as we please; baptism doesn’t give us a free pass into heaven regardless of what we do subsequently. Nor is it to say that God can’t bring about salvation in any other way if he so chooses. Rather through baptism we get a fresh start and the chance to live in a way which, if we follow it, will lead to heaven.
It’s not enough just to make the means of redemption available, though, more needs to be done, and that brings us to the third condition: people have to be encouraged to avail of the means of redemption. And the best way to do that is to give people an example so Christ submitted to John’s baptism. In so doing Christ encouraged all of us to be baptised and he identified himself with sinful humanity as the one who will act on our behalf to save us.
So if this feast is about Jesus encouraging us to follow the path to salvation how does it relate to Christmastide? Why put it now at the end of Christmastide? Well during Christmas we celebrate God’s coming into the world. But he came into the world for the purpose of our redemption. And the baptism of Jesus is the first public event in Christ’s mission. He starts to show us how to live and his authority is acknowledged by the Father. So it brings to an end what we have been celebrating at Christmas- God’s coming into the world for our salvation- and it sets us up quite nicely for ordinary time: follow Christ’s example, there we find the way to salvation.
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Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11|Titus 2:11-14,3:4-7|Luke 3:15-16,21-22