“The Church does not dispense the sacrament of baptism in order to acquire for herself an increase in membership but in order to consecrate a human being to God and to communicate to that person the divine gift of birth from God.” - Hans Urs von Balthasar: (1905 – 1988: was a Swiss theologian and author of “Unless You Become Like This Child”)
Gospel Text: (LK 3:15-16, 21-22)
The people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
After all the people had been baptized
and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,
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.”
Why would God choose to get baptized? He certainly didn’t need what baptism gives to a person like you and me. When you were baptized, three changes happened within you.
First of all, the Original Sin that you inherited from Adam and Eve was washed away. But this cleaning of your soul was for the sake of God putting into your soul a great gift of Himself. In other words, this second change is more important than the first. Or rather, the first serves the second, just as we go to Confession not only to have our sins washed away, but also to strengthen us to act as Christ within our life, by Christ acting within us.
So this second change is God giving you the grace—the spiritual strength—to follow Jesus through this world. As we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord today, we are celebrating a path that Jesus makes clear to us. But where does this path lead?
Jesus certainly had no need to be baptized since He had never committed any sin, and was never marked even by Original Sin. But then again, Jesus never had to die on the Cross, either. Jesus did nothing in His life on this earth because He had to. He did everything freely. He did not hang upon the Cross because He was guilty of anything. He was the innocent Lamb of God. He allowed Himself to be hanged on the Cross in order to take away the sins of the world, including your sins and mine.
Jesus did not have to be baptized, but He was baptized in order to show us the first step on the path to salvation. Baptism is, so to speak, the “door of the Church”. When we pass through that door, we become members of the Body of Christ, and accept the responsibility of being a Christian, which in one phrase means accepting the call—the vocation—to holiness.
“Accepting the call to holiness” is what being a Christian means. Every Christian is called to be holy. Every Christian has a vocation, in fact, to be a “saint,” since the words “saint” and “holy” mean exactly the same thing. The particular vocations within the Church—Holy Matrimony, consecrated life, and Holy Orders—have to be rooted in the soil of this foundational “vocation to holiness” if they are to flower and bear great fruit.
At the age of thirty-three Jesus of Nazareth died on the Cross, opening the gates to Heaven for those who choose to enter. When each one of us was baptized, we died, too, because death is the meaning of the Sacrament of Baptism. That’s what being submerged in water—or at least having it poured upon us—symbolizes at the celebration of Baptism. Baptism means ending an old way of life. But it also means beginning a new way of life.
As we hear the scene in today’s Gospel passage, we could ask ourselves not just, “Why was Jesus baptized?”, but also, “Why did the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus?” and, “Why did God the Father speak from Heaven?” The answer to all these questions is the same. These things happened for us, to lead us on a path towards true freedom in our lives. This epiphany of Jesus’ glory is not for Jesus’ sake. The Father speaks of the Beloved Son, and the Spirit descends upon the Beloved Son, so that each of us could be beloved: filled with the Holy Spirit, as we follow after Jesus by sharing directly in His mystical life of love with the Father.