Opening the Word: Currents of reflection

If baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins, why did Jesus insist on being baptized by his cousin, John? And if baptism, as St. Peter wrote, “now saves you … through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 3:21), why would the Messiah deem it appropriate, even necessary, to be baptized? What was the point of the Lord’s baptism in the Jordan River?

These and related questions fascinated and perplexed many of the early Church Fathers and theologians. The baptism of Christ, writes Benedictine Father Kilian McDonnell in his study of the topic, “The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation” (Liturgical Press, $24.95), was widely discussed in all the currents of theological reflection in the early Church, “without doubt partly because of the problems it posed.” From this discussion emerged many helpful theological insights.

St. Justin Martyr (d. 165) addressed the baptism in his “Dialogue with Trypho.” He emphasized that the son had no need to be baptized, but did so in order to reveal himself to mankind; the baptism, in other words, was the messianic manifestation, a sign for the Church first, and then the world.

When Jesus came to the waters, St. Justin wrote, “He was deemed a carpenter,” but the proclamation of the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove showed him to be far more than a woodworker.

In “Against Heresies,” St. Irenaeus (d. c. 202) focused on the participation of those who believe in Christ in the anointing of the Savior. The connection between the baptism and anointing is evident in the New Testament, as heard in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles: “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power” (Acts 10:38). This same anointing, St. Irenaeus wrote, is given to those who are baptized into Christ. The Holy Spirit has become “accustomed in fellowship with him to dwell in the human race, to rest with human beings, and to dwell in the workmanship of God, working the will of the Father in them, and renewing them from their old habits into the newness of Christ.”

Others delved into the mystery and meaning of the Jordan River. St. Hippolytus (d. c. 236) referred to “the Grand Jordan”; Origen (d. 254) wrote that just as “no one is good, except the one and only God, the Father,” likewise “no river is good except the Jordan.” St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. c. 394), in his treatise, “On the Baptism of Jesus,” wrote: “For Jordan alone of rivers, receiving in itself the first-fruits of sanctification and benediction, conveyed in its channel to the whole world, as it were from some fount in the type afforded by itself, the grace of baptism.” Just as Joshua entered the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan, Jesus opened the way to heaven by entering the same waters.

St. Ephrem (d. 373) wrote a hymn connecting the baptism of Jesus with the womb of Mary and the Sacrament of the Eucharist: “See, Fire and Spirit in the womb that bore you! See, Fire and Spirit in the river where you were baptized! Fire and Spirit in our Baptism; in the Bread and the Cup, Fire and Holy Spirit!”

Christ dwelt first in the womb of the Virgin and then in the womb of the Jordan; he emerged from both as the Incarnate Word. Those who are baptized thus become the children of Mary and partakers of the body, blood, soul and divinity of her son.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of