As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the 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 Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:15-16 & 21-22 – NRSV)
The Greek verb baptein means “to immerse or wash”. Both notions – immersion and washing – are present in the Christian understanding of baptism, though with very specific intent.
“Many religions in antiquity practised different washings and baths. This holds true for the mysteries of Eleusis, of Mithras, and of Isis; the OT prescribed several ablutions to be performed, rules which were observed by Jews also in NT times (John 2:6); the Qumran community laid a particular stress on them, and Bannus (Joseph. Life. 10) and John the Baptist were not alone in practising baptisms outside of mainstream Judaism; other baptismal movements also appeared in the Transjordanian/Syrian area. Sometime during the 1st century C.E. proselyte baptism was introduced in Judaism, and when baptism received a central place in Mandeism, the rite as such was certainly no novelty, regardless of whether it should be regarded as pre-Christian or not. One should beware of assigning the same or even similar meanings to these rites. As rites they are open to several interpretations; in each case it is to be expected that the meaning of the rite is provided by the ritual context or otherwise through instruction or tradition.” (L Hartman, Baptism. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Volume 1, Doubleday, 1992, 583.)
Scholars tell us that the descriptions of John the Baptist and his preaching in the Gospels echo the prophet Malachi 3:1: “…. this means adducing a text which illustrates the spiritual climate in which John appeared. There, in the perspective of the coming Day of Yahweh, we encounter the following motifs: a messenger sent before God (3:1), God’s coming (3:1–2, 5), the coming of the Day (3:2; 3:19, 23), purification through fire (3:2–4), burning (3:19), returning to God (3:7) from sins against fellowmen (3:5) and against God (3:8–9, 13–15), the sending of Eliah before the Day comes (3:23).” (Op cit, 584.)
Jesus’ baptism by John is certain. And it contains a subtle but profound significance. Given that John is preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sin, and that this is symbolised in the baptism he offers, we must ask why does Jesus – the sinless one – allow John to baptize him? The answer lies in the identity of Jesus as “the suffering servant” – see Isaiah 42:1-4 & 53:1-12. Matthew’s Gospel reminds us: “He took our sicknesses away and carried our diseases for us”. Matthew is citing Isaiah 53:4. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus “is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” – see John 1:29 & 36. With this in mind we can understand a little better the words spoken by Jesus later in Luke’s Gospel: “There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress until it is over” – Luke 12:50.
Thus St Paul says starkly: “For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God” (2Corinthains 5:21). Jesus heals the broken world from within. In his life, death and resurrection Jesus gives us the victory over sin and death. We are “baptized into his death” (Romans 6:3). Our baptism is an immersion in Christ – we become one with him – and it is a purification and healing – we share in his victory over sin and death.
Jesus’ baptism is an “immersion” in and a “washing” of human existence. It epitomises the incarnation – the enfleshing of God. Our baptism is a sharing in that enfleshing of God and the baptism of Jesus. We are baptized into him (see Romans 6:3). And so our baptism is also an “immersion” in and a “washing” of our human existence. Through him, with him and in him we can become fully human. Because of Christ we are able to become what we are. “The human being is an animal who has the vocation to become God.” (From St Gregory Nazianzen’s eulogy for his friend, St Basil of Caesarea. Gregory is actually quoting Basil himself.)
This is the work of the Holy Spirit of God. The angel Gabriel said to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will cover you with its shadow” (Luke 1:35). After the resurrection Jesus tells the disciples: “And now I am sending down to you what the Father has promised. Stay in the city then, until you are clothed with the power from on high” (Luke 24:49). And then we are reminded at the beginning of Acts: “It is …. what you have heard me speak about: John baptized with water but you, not many days from now, will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (1:5).
Baptism is a journey, a beginning rather than an end. It is a promise. We can trust that promise absolutely. Do we really want the promise fulfilled? Is there not some deep resistance to our best possibilities – our divine potential – being fulfilled? Do we really want to be fully alive? Are we perhaps more at home with a second hand identity, one that we have fabricated in collusion with family, friends and society? Is perhaps our fear of “being an animal who has the vocation to become God” the enemy of our baptism?
T S Eliot reminds us: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality” (“Burnt Norton). But Jesus says: “Come!” He knows that we resist being human. His invitation is gentle but insistent: “Come!” Pray for light – “Lord that I may see!” (Mark 10:51). Let me glimpse something of the beauty and goodness and truth of who and what I am. After all, You made me and You do not make rubbish. Let me see me the way You see me – “The Lord delights in you” (Isaiah 62:4). You are love and You cannot not love me. In my moments of doubt, remind me what You think of me: “I am love. There is nothing you can do that will change that. No matter what, I will love you absolutely, unconditionally, everywhere, all the time.”
NOTE: Michael Whelan is now in Twitter – ppstpats.