Some 16 centuries ago, St. Ephrem wrote this about the Incarnate Son of God:
“See, Fire and Spirit are in the womb that bore you! / See, Fire and Spirit are in the river where you were baptized!Fire and Spirit are in our Baptism; / and in the Bread and the Cup is Fire and Holy Spirit!”
St. Ephrem points to connections and continuities that might not be immediately obvious. And when it comes to the baptism of Jesus Christ, these are worth pondering for many reasons, not least because of an important question often posed about that event — “Why?” If baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins, why did Jesus insist on being baptized in the Jordan River? If baptism “saves you now … through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 3:21), why would the Savior insist on being baptized?The great apologist of the early Church, St. Justin Martyr, took up this question in his “Dialogue with Trypho.” Just as the Son of God had no need to be born, to suffer or to die, the Son did not need to be baptized, but did so to reveal himself to mankind. Justin wrote that when Jesus came to the waters, “He was deemed a carpenter,” but the proclamation of the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove revealed him as much more. In Luke’s account, everyone had been baptized and then afterward, while Jesus was praying, “heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. … ”
That manifestation was the first public witness of the Holy Trinity. But it was not the first public manifestation of Jesus’ divine origins, nature and mission. The first such manifestation was celebrated last week, on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, when the Christ Child was made known to the Magi and, by extension, to the whole world. Echoes of the Epiphany are found in the reading from Isaiah, with its reference to the “light for the nations” and for “those who live in darkness.” The baptism of Jesus, then, was an overt and outward sign, first for the Church but also for the whole world, of a new covenant and of liberation, as Isaiah mentions, as well as an eternal blessing of peace, as heard in the responsorial Psalm.
Yet Jesus was sinless, so why be baptized? Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in “Life of Christ,” summed up the thinking of many Church Fathers: “It is equally absurd to say that Our Lord should not have been baptized because he had no personal guilt. If he was to be identified with humanity, so much so as to call himself the ‘Son of Man,’ then he had to share the guilt of humanity. And this was the meaning of the baptism by John.” Here we see the connection and continuity due to the Incarnation: God became man so that men might share in God’s very life. The God-man, although sinless, would live in the midst of a sinful people and would identify himself with them in every way — except without sinning.
Finally, we return to the work of the Holy Spirit. The descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus, as Peter explained to Cornelius, was an anointing. The Messiah, or the Christ, is “the anointed one,” and the anointing he received, stated St. Irenaeus, is given by grace to those baptized into him (see Rom 6:1-4). 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.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.