I never understood the baptism of Christ, since he is sinless and born of a sinless mother. Please explain.
— Lydia Volpe, Oneida, N.Y.
Answer: It is clear that Jesus was without sin (e.g., Heb 4:15). Even as Jesus approaches John for baptism, John instinctively protests. However, the Lord explains, saying, “Let it be now so in order to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15).
Jesus is referring to the righteousness (justice) of God. God’s justice is his fidelity to his promises. And God had promised to send us a Messiah to go ahead of us and lead us out of sin and into righteousness.
At the River Jordan, Jesus is like Moses, who did not just tell the people to cross the Red Sea, he went ahead, courageously leading them through the stormy waters. Jesus does no less. And he does not tell us merely to go to the waters of baptism; he leads us through baptism, out of slavery, into freedom.
The liturgy of the Church speaks of Jesus not being made holy by the waters, but making the waters holy to bless us. Jesus also does this with the “baptism” of the whole Paschal Mystery. He does not merely tell us to take up a cross, he takes up his cross and bids us to follow. He does not merely point to the hill of Calvary; he leads us up over that hill and unto glory.
This is God’s righteousness, his justice, this is his fidelity to his promises.
Another aspect of Jesus’ baptism is the remarkable fact that he identifies with sinners, though he himself is not a sinner. He is not ashamed to call us his brethren (Heb 2:11). He who was sinless was seen as a great sinner and crucified publicly. Such love, such emptying, such humility. For the Lord conquers Satan’s pride, and ours, by astonishing humility. And in this too, Jesus “fulfills all righteousness” by being baptized, going into the waters ahead of us.
Lust and the clergy
Question: In the history show “How Sex Changed the World,” they speak about the Church’s role in prostitution and said that 20 percent of the “customers” were clergy. Is there any truth to this?
— Susan Marron, Simi Valley, Calif.
Answer: When one hears claims about Church history that are less than flattering or shocking, two balancing perspectives are helpful.
On the one hand, one ought not to become to alarmed or defensive of claims that there has been sin in the Church. Any time there is one human being in the room, there is bound to be sin.
And the Church is very big and very old. The “hospital” we call the Church includes many saints, but is also a hospital for sinners.
On the other hand, not all claims of sin in the Church are fair or presented in proper context. And some claims are outright lies or exaggerations. Thus it is highly unlikely that 20 percent of the clientele of prostitutes were clergy.
There are and have been even great sinners among the clergy. But as recent scandals (sadly) show, the percentage of offending clergy is quite small, though even a small number is too many and can cause great harm.
And so we must have balance. Jesus has always been found among sinners, to the scandal of some. We do not make light of sin, we simply seek fairness.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.