Jesus’ Baptism

The readings for Sunday, January 10, 2016, Baptism of the Lord, Cycle C, are
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7; and Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

The baptism to which Jesus submitted during the ministry of John the Baptizer was not the sacrament of baptism. The sacrament of baptism is believed to have been instituted by Jesus after his resurrection. Only from the death and resurrection of Jesus do our seven sacraments  receive the power to do what they symbolize.  A foundational text for Jesus’ institution of the sacrament of baptism is found at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus appears in glory to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee. Among his final directions to his disciples we find these words, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, etc.”

Washing or baptizing as a religious ritual was not invented by Jesus and his disciples, nor John the Baptizer. There are earlier examples of ritual washings in heathen religions, such as the “mysteries” of Mithras, Eleusis, Isis (an ancient Egyptian goddess). In Old Testament times the highpriest, after completing the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, had to undergo a ritual bath. First century Jews had a practice of a ritual bath for converts. During that ritual bath the commandments of the Torah (not just the Big Ten, but all 613 of them) were recited. Since those commandments spoke of sin, the idea was already in place to connect ritual washing with repentance. Thus the command attributed to St. Peter in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized every one of you…for the forgiveness of sins.” John’s baptism is described in Luke 3:3, “a baptism (washing) for the forgiveness of sins.”

With the above background in mind, we turn to the Gospel reading for this Sunday. There are two parts. The first part emphasizes the popularity and influence of the Baptizer with the Jews of his time. “All the people were in expectation, and all were debating in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he might be the Messiah.” Expectation of a Messiah (king, savior, rescuer, deliverer) seems to have reached new heights in the first century of our era. Some of that expectation must have arisen from the oppressive Roman occupation of the Holy Land. Occupation brought with it high taxation paid to a foreign government (Rome), absentee ownership of much of the land, and the brutal tactics of some of the Roman proconsuls, governors, and prefects. There were various types of messianic expectation — a religious leader, a secular or king, a combination of both.

Some statements the Gospels attribute to Jesus’ disciples express hope for a Jewish king, perhaps a combination of high priest and king like some of the Maccabees in the centuries close to New Testament times. The disciples ask Jesus, “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” The Baptizer humbly denies that he might be an expected rescuer of his oppressed fellow Jews, “I baptize you with water. The One mightier than I is en route, the cords of whose sandals I am unworthy to untie.” John lowers himself beneath a slave who cares for his master’s footware. Behind the frequent humbling of the Baptizer in the Gospels is the historical situation that there were disciples of John who claimed that he was Messiah in contrast to the Christian claim that Jesus was Messiah. The competition of such “Baptists” with the Christian claim continued for centuries.

The second part of this Sunday’s gospel is Jesus’ submission to “the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Why does the unblemished Lamb of God submit to an external expression of sinfulness? Strange indeed! It is even stranger that in Luke’s version John is not even present for Jesus’ baptism. There’s a story to this! Mark’s gospel, about 70 A.D., has the oldest version of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus comes to the Jordan and John baptizes him. No problem! Luke and Matthew compose their Gospels fifteen to twenty years later, when the above-noted “Baptist” movement would have been in its heyday. Can one allow the lesser, the self-proclaimed slave, to baptize the One whom Mark’s gospel already proclaimed “Son of God” in his opening sentence? Matthew handles it this way. Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John. John objects and says to Jesus, “You ought to baptize me.” Jesus orders John to baptize him. All o.k.

A final note. The sinless Jesus, submitting to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, begins what he completed on the cross — taking upon himself the sins of the world.