Over the past weekend, I noticed an interesting Facebook post about a tweet that a Catholic cardinal “supposed” sent via Twitter. Whether his intention was heretical or if it was simply loose and careless theology could certainly be up for debate, I wish to write to clarify the reasons for why Jesus was actually Baptized.
Contrary to what was purported by the cardinal, Jesus did not require Baptism for salvation and also did not need to be “reborn in grace”. Already sinless, Jesus first and foremost entered the waters of the Jordan as an example for the new sacramental life of grace for his disciples to follow. In John 3:5 Jesus taught Nicodemus [and later us] of the necessity for Baptism when he declared, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes the importance of this passage as well:
Baptism is the sacrament of faith. But faith needs the community of believers. It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe. The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop. The catechumen or the godparent is asked: “What do you ask of God’s Church?” The response is: “Faith!” (No. 1253).
Along with modeling the importance of Baptism, though Jesus himself did not require cleansing from sin, three additional lessons may be learned from the Event of the Baptism of Our Lord.
1. Fulfillment of Old Testament: Several key events in the Bible relate to water. The Flood in Genesis 6-8, the Crossing of the Red Sea, and the Crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land are just a few of the aquatic occasions detailed in the Old Testament. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Christians therefore read the Old Testament in the light of Christ crucified and risen. Such typological reading discloses the inexhaustible content of the Old Testament; but it must not make us forget that the Old Testament retains its own intrinsic value as Revelation reaffirmed by our Lord himself. Besides, the New Testament has to be read in the light of the Old. Early Christian catechesis made constant use of the Old Testament. As an old saying put it, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New” (CCC 129).
The Baptism of Jesus is a feast to help us realize the fulfillment of God’s promises from long ago.
2. Prefiguring Death of Jesus: Along with being foreshadowed in the Old Testament, Jesus’ Baptism signified an anticipation of his Death. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI describes this perfectly in his work Jesus of Nazareth,
Looking at the events (of Christ’s baptism) in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross. He is, as it were, the true Jonah who said to the crew of the ship, ”Take me and throw me into the sea” (Jon. 1:12) . . . The baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity, and the voice that calls out “This is my beloved Son” over the baptismal waters is an anticipatory reference to the Resurrection. This also explains why, in his own discourses, Jesus uses the word
“baptism” to refer to his death (18).
Death to sin [original] gives way to a new life in the sacrament of Baptism. A new life of grace occurs through the waters of Baptism.
3. Doorway to Adoption: According to my favorite reference book– the thesaurus, synonyms for adoption include the following: acceptance, confirmation, ratification, and support. While each of those words convey a strong and position sense of adoption the synonym that stood out most to me was embracing. Biological birth occurs through the profound act of sex, however, unfortunately not every child is welcomed a gift as a result. The major difference with adoption versus biological parenthood is that the former always seeks out the child to be welcomed into the family whereas that is not always the case for the latter. Please note that this is not a knock on biological parents as some of the best parents gained children through biology [i.e. MY PARENTS!].
The Catholic Church teaches in the Catechism in paragraph 1265, “Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte “a new creature,” an adopted son of God, who has become a “partaker of the divine nature,” member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.” Because of original sin, the biology of humanity is tarnished with a natural aversion from God’s will. Humans naturally seek their own will over the Will of the Father. Through the waters of Baptism, people cleansed of original sin and enter into the door of the sacramental life of the Church.
While Jesus did not require rebirth into the sacramental life of grace, he was baptized by John in the Jordan River to fulfill the Old Testament, prefigure his Death and Resurrection, and be a model for God’s faithful. German Catholic philosopher Josef Piper declared, “Adoption is the visible Gospel.” The graces received through the sacrament of Baptism truly brings good news as we become adopted children of God!