With the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, the Church concludes the Christmas season. For nearly three weeks, we celebrated these holy days, pondering the mysteries of the Incarnation, Nativity and Epiphany of Christ. It is fitting that the one who lept for joy in the womb of St. Elizabeth should be the one to formally usher in the Messiah: St. John the Baptist.
Jesus, for His part, did not have to undergo the baptism ritual of his cousin. He who was the Sinless One did not need purification. The Baptist pointed that out to Him as He approached St. John. However, Jesus chose to submit Himself to this act to "fulfill all righteousness." At the moment He rose from the waters of the Jordan, the final Epiphany took place: that of the Blessed Trinity. The Father's voice was heard from the clouds proclaiming "This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." The Holy Spirit descended on Christ in the form of a dove.
The elements of the voice, the dove and the waters harken back to Genesis. In the beginning, the Book of Genesis relates that the voice of God commanded that light be created. At Jesus' baptism, the Father revealed that the true Light had come into the world as He declared His love for His only begotten Son. Later on, in Genesis, we read about the waters of the great flood that nearly destroyed the whole world, save for Noah, his families and the animals aboard the ark. At Jesus' baptism, the same waters that meant death for man would not be the cause of his rebirth into new life. Towards the end of the flood narrative, Genesis tells us that Noah released a dove in order to ascertain whether or not the waters had receded. The dove returns to Noah with proof, an olive branch. When Noah releases the dove again, it fails to return. Now, at the moment of Jesus' baptism, the dove returns to earth as the Holy Spirit. Just as Noah's dove signaled that all would be well, the Holy Spirit heralds the beginning of the new creation brought about by Baptism.
The Baptism of the Lord foreshadows the passion and death that He will endure for us men and for our salvation some three years later. When Jesus talks about his desire to undergo the baptism he must receive, He is referring to being baptized in His own blood. When he goes down into the waters of the Jordan River, it is symbolic of His going down into the pit of death. As he rises from the waters, this act foreshadows His resurrection.
When we receive the Sacrament of Baptism, our souls are washed clean of the stain of original sin. As a priest friend of mine preached today, we have, lamentably, lost sight of the seriousness of sin. Sin is real. In the West, we are quite fastidious about washing and sanitizing our hands, lest we catch or spread some comunicable disease like the common cold. We treat the flu quite seriously, almost to the point of obession so as to avoid catching it and spreading it. But, when it comes to sin, it is not quite taken as seriously as it should be. H1N1 scares us more than sin.
I often wonder if we treat the Sacrament of Baptism with the care and respect that it deserves. While the Church spends significant amounts of time catechizing parents and godparents on their responsibilities to the children they will be presenting for baptism, not a few times, the trappings of the event, such as the infant's gown, the party and the guest-list seem to overshadow the sacrament. We need to remember that promises are being made on behalf of the infant. Parents and godparents become responsible for keeping the flame of Faith lit all throughout that child's life and to educate the little one in that same Faith, giving good example. It's not a one and done ritual. It is the beginning of that baby's life as a child of God and a child of the Church. Just as the parents are diligent about ensuring that their children are immunized and kept physically healthy, they need to take just as much care that their souls are kept as pure as possible. This means introducing these children to the Faith of the Church, especially to the Mass at an early age. It means teaching children about the evils of sin and about the supreme price Jesus paid to save us. We are reminded of that price at every Mass we attend for we once again return to that moment.
At the moment of baptism, we are a new creation, grafted into the family of God as His adopted sons and daughters. We go down into the Jordan with Jesus, baptized into His death, so that He can bring us to new life. But, baptism is not the end of our journey of Faith; it is the beginning, just as Jesus' Baptism signaled the start of His mission.