The apostle Peter, having witnessed a startling vision of unclean animals descending from the opened heavens (Acts 10:10-16), was prompted by the Holy Spirit to meet with the God-fearing Gentile and centurion, Cornelius. This marked the growing awareness that the Gospel and the new covenant were meant for peoples of every nation.
Yes, Jesus had given the apostles the commission to go and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19), but there was uncertainty, even great tension, regarding how all it would really work.
Peter admitted to Cornelius his recognition that “God shows no partiality” when it comes to Jews and Gentiles. He then gave a short summary of the Gospel, explaining that God had first proclaimed “peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all,” to the Israelites, and he had “anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.” Jesus is the anointed one; in other words, he is the Messiah.
In the Old Testament, anointing was an act of consecration, of setting a man apart in a unique way for the word and work of God. To be anointed, however, was not just to be set apart, but to be given the power to perform the task given by God. A priest was made so by anointing; a prophet was declared so by anointing; a king was named so by anointing. The anointed one — the Messiah — would therefore be all three: priest, prophet and king.
The public anointing of Jesus for his ministry took place at his baptism. Having emerged from the waters of the Jordan River, “the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him.” Jesus was not anointed with oil, but with the Holy Spirit; the Incarnate Word was not blessed with human words, but with the Father’s voice: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
In this way, the Trinity was revealed, and the mission of the three divine persons was set forth to renew, to redeem and to save.
But why would Jesus, who was sinless, be baptized? Water, which is the “matter” of the Sacrament of Baptism, must be blessed; it must be recognized as more than just a material thing but as a true means of grace. “The blessing of water,” wrote the Orthodox theologian, Father Alexander Schmemann, “signifies the return or redemption of matter to its initial and essential meaning. By accepting the baptism of John, Christ sanctified the water — made it the water of purification and reconciliation with God.”
As Jesus came up from the waters, the Spirit once again moved upon the waters of creation, marking the start of the new creation, to be fully completed and revealed at the end of time and history. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the “Summa Theologica,” wrote: “I answer that, It was fitting for Christ to be baptized. First, because, as Ambrose says in Luke 3:21: ‘Our Lord was baptized because He wished, not to be cleansed, but to cleanse the waters, that, being purified by the flesh of Christ that knew no sin, they might have the virtue of baptism.’”
As Benedict XVI noted in a 2010 homily, “to be a Christian is to come from Christ, to belong to Christ, to the anointed one of God, to whom God granted kingship and priesthood. It means belonging to him whom God himself anointed — not with material oil, but with the One whom the oil represents: with his Holy Spirit.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.