Are you confused by Jesus’ baptism? Many people find it confusing. Why would Jesus be baptized when it was a sign of repentance? He was sinless, so why would he be baptized?
If you find the Baptism of Jesus confusing, that is a good sign. That means that the power of the sign is sinking in. Jesus often proclaimed the kingdom of God with disturbing parables or signs. Remember how unsettled Peter was when Jesus washed his feet? Why would his master kneel down and wash his feet like a servant? It was good for Peter to be disturbed. That meant that he was beginning to understand the significance of the gesture.
That is the kind of moment we have here. John said about Jesus, “One mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the straps of his sandals.” (Lk. 3:16) Imagine how confusing this was for John the Baptist!
God likes to surprise us, like having his Son born in a stable and laid in a feed trough for animals. By his humble birth, Jesus came to be with poor shepherds, instead of important people like kings or the Jewish leaders. It was a prophetic sign that God dwells with all people, especially with the poor and humble. Later Jesus clarified this sign by telling a parable of his final coming in glory when he will judge the world. After listing categories of the poor – the hungry, homeless, sick, prisoners, and strangers or immigrants without any legal rights – he disturbs us by declaring, “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers [and sisters], you did to me.” (Mt. 25:40) In that parable, he warned us that we should see him in every poor person. The most desperate people are special places where he dwells. That is what it meant for him to be born and laid in a feed trough.
Jesus’ baptism is an extension of that revelation. Now he reveals an even deeper love. He is with us in our sin. He joins sinners coming for baptism. As people come in droves to John the Baptist, Jesus associates himself with sinful humanity.
That is why he chose to be crucified between two criminals, a prophetic sign shocking us with his mercy. When one of the criminals pleaded with him, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he assured him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk. 23:42-43)
Jesus’ baptism foreshadows the cross, where he takes on the sin of all the world. He experienced the whole weight of human sin at the crucifixion. Yet, he kept speaking of mercy. He stunned us by praying for those who crucified him, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk. 23:34)
In the second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote: “For our sake [God] made [his Son] to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor. 5:21). When we think of this, we should have a holy confusion. We should ask, “What is God doing? How could Jesus act with such goodness?”
In his letter to Titus, St. Paul reacts to this mystery by saying, “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 [i.e., by our baptism] and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us.” (Tit. 3:4-6)
One of the goals of religion is wonder….. to sit and marvel at who God is and how God acts. Jesus was baptized to be with us in our sin and rescue us from sin. Through his birth and baptism, “the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy.”
But it doesn’t stop there. We are also baptized. He has baptized us “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Lk. 3:16) We share his mission. Now we are supposed to shock people with our prophetic deeds like St. Maximillian Kolbe who volunteered to die in a starvation bunker at Auschwitz for a man he did not know, or like Mother Teresa who picked up the dying off the streets of Kolkata because she was struck by the warning, “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me.”
We have been given the Holy Spirit and the fire of God’s love. We have been immersed in the Spirit, not because of any righteous deeds we had done, but because of his mercy.
Today, marvel at how that gift has been revealed in Jesus. And ask for the grace to act like him – to be his hands and feet in the world, and to recognize Christ in his least brothers and sisters.