So here we are still in the early days of a new semester and a new year. Last year is in the past now, and we look ahead to the new one. What is going to be different this year? What do we want to do differently? What junk do we want to leave behind, and what positive things do we want to bring into our lives? A year from now, will we look back on this year with regret, or will we look back on it with contentment?
Today is also the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, when we celebrate how, as we heard in today’s Gospel, Jesus joined the crowds who were going out to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist in the desert. Why on earth did Jesus do this? If we look at how Baptism was understood back then, and how we understand it now, this doesn’t seem to make sense. In the era of John the Baptist, baptism indicated a conversion; a person wanted to change his or her life and leave behind one’s past sins. So it involved a confession of one’s sins and then a plunge into the water, symbolizing a ritual cleansing or purification of those sins. It had to be flowing water, not stagnant water, so the Jordan River would have been a great location to be baptized. Going down into the water also symbolized death, and rising up out of it represented new life. This is all quite similar to our own sacrament of baptism, when water is poured over the person, or you are immersed in water, and you receive forgiveness for your sins. And like our baptism, the baptism performed by John the Baptist in the Jordan River was a one-time-only event.
So, with this in mind, why would Jesus participate in this? Being God himself, he was not in need of conversion. He had no sins to be forgiven for or washed clean of. Although we do not hear it in Luke’s version of the baptism of Jesus, in the account given in the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist even says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Even he did not understand why Jesus was doing this.
As the Church Fathers have explained, there was a two-fold purpose to Jesus’ baptism. First, Jesus comes to be baptized along with many other people. He is part of this crowd of humanity. Doing this showed his solidarity with the human race. Although he is the creator of the universe, he chose to enter into this world and experience life just like his creatures. He lowered himself; he came down from heaven to be one of us, like us in all things but sin. Although he himself was not a sinner and so was not in need of conversion or forgiveness, Jesus chose to identify himself with the sinful human race. Even more than that though, he chose to take our sins upon himself. As we know, he chose to go to the Cross to take the punishment that the human race deserved. Radical solidarity with each one of us.
And in descending into the waters of the Jordan River, Jesus sanctified them – he made them holy by his very presence. He gave to the water a power it previously did not have. Whereas before, the ritual cleansing with water only symbolized a purification of one’s past sins, with Jesus’ baptism the waters of baptism now have the power to really and truly wash one clean of one’s sins, not in a symbolic sense only but in reality. So when an infant is baptized he or she is washed clean of any stain of original sin; when an adult is baptized, through the sacrament of baptism one receives forgiveness for all one’s previous sins.
Why did Jesus sanctify the waters of baptism? So that we might become like him. This is what theologians have called the “marvelous exchange” – God became like us so that we might become like him. Jesus did not become man for his sake. He wasn’t up in heaven getting bored when one day he decided he could have a cool, interesting experience by checking out earth, seeing what it’s like to live like a human, kind of like a tourist backpacking around Europe. He became man so that we might become like God. And we can only become like God by turning away from sin and being washed clean of our sins.
And in doing this, Jesus also gives us a new identity. When he was baptized and then rose up out of the water – a foreshadowing of his future death and resurrection – a voice from heaven spoke, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” In baptism, we receive a new identity: we too become God’s sons and daughters – his beloved sons and daughters. This is our true identity. And this is the only identity in which we will ever find peace and joy. Think of all the other identities we give other people, or which we give ourselves. People often identify themselves by what they do, as in what job they have, or what they own. Or they might identify themselves by something they enjoy. They might identify themselves by whom they are attracted to. They might identify themselves by their politics, or by their status as a victim of someone’s sins against them. These are all incomplete identities. They will not give us peace. They might give us the illusion of peace for a time – a sense of belonging for a time perhaps – but they are all passing. And ultimately, they will only leave us feeling dissatisfied and incomplete, searching for something more.
Only God can tell us who we really are. Only He can give us our true identity: his beloved children. This is what Jesus does through his own baptism, and in our baptism. He became like us so that we might become like Him.