Some wonder that the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated so soon after Christmas. After all, it is not as if Jesus got baptised as a baby at two or three weeks old as is a familiar custom in the Church. Indeed, there can be no comparison. We do not keep today’s feast so soon after celebrating Jesus’ birth as a kind of Catholic “boost” for infant baptism. Jesus was 30 years old at the time of his baptism by John in the River Jordan, a baptism very different from what we think of with special baby garments and candles and maybe a family gathering afterwards.
Baptism of the Lord by Grigory Gagarin, c. 1840–1850
The baptism that Jesus received was a baptism of repentance. What? Did you say repentance? Jesus? Repent? It is the great mystery of our faith, that, as Paul writes, “he who knew no sin became sin so that in him we might become the holiness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is a verse in Scripture that has vexed Christian thinkers throughout history. Of course, it’s clear that Paul did not say that Jesus became a sinner. The key interpretive words are “so that…” In submitting to John’s baptism of repentance, Jesus was identifying himself with, or better, putting himself in solidarity with, sinful humanity – a humanity he assumed at his incarnation. The incarnation of the Word – the second Person of the Trinity – is a fulfilment of God’s plan from the beginning of time. Paul describes it this way in Philippians: “His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave and became as people are…” (2:6-7). This self-emptying is known as the divine “kenosis”.
The Baptism of the Lord in a profound way, therefore, represents his adult manifestation of the same mystery we celebrated at Christmas when we delighted in his birth as a baby through Mary. The Baptism of Jesus at age 30 is his incarnation writ large. He is one of us. He is truly one of us. He plunges, not only into the Jordan River, but into the river of our human folly and sinfulness, the polluted river of our greed and exploitation of the planet, the murky river of our lies and deceptions; and as he emerges from it a voice is heard from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you” (Luke 3:22).
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is rightly a feast celebrated in Christmastide. It is another feast of the incarnation, the “kenosis”, the self-emptying of the Wordmade-flesh. John the Baptist leapt for joy in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth, when Mary greeted her. John leaps for joy again at the Jordan when, as another John writes in his Gospel, “He proclaims, this is the one of whom I said: he who comes after me ranks before me because he existed before me” (John 1:15).
Perhaps after all there isn’t a huge disparity between today’s feast and Christian baptism. Both celebrate the divine mystery of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity so that we, by grace, may come to share in his divinity.