After all the beautiful narratives that commemorated aspects of the Lord’s birth and early life, believers now spiritually stand on the edges of the Jordan River to witness his baptism. The Scriptures tell us that in his thirtieth year, Jesus approached his kinsman, John the Baptist, and asked to be baptized.
John’s initial response to the request was one of profound humility: “I am not worthy…”. The Lord, however, pushed the issue with John and told him to baptize him, which he did.
After the baptism, the Holy Spirit – appearing as a dove – came upon the Lord and the Father’s voice was heard: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” This is the first revelation of the Trinity, the three persons in God.
The baptismal event is packed with ancient and deep biblical signs and symbols. If a believer were asked today: What happens at baptism. The rattled answer might be given: Original sin is removed, we are adopted by God and become members of Christ’s Body, the Church.
These are all accurate answers and they give a much-needed perspective, but is something maybe missing in the list?
Each of the three answers that were given above could miss the rather simple ceremony in which they occur. Yes, original sin is removed. It’s washed away. Certainly, we are adopted by God since he says to us what he says to his own Son by nature: You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter, with you I am well pleased.
And, definitely, we become a member of Christ’s Body. Not a member like I have a card to a club or group, but a true member, like an arm or leg (for example, we can think of the wording that’s used when an accident occurs and someone is said to have been dismembered).
And yet, each of these occur within the soul of a person in a modest sacrament that involves plain water, a formula to the Holy Trinity (“I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit), an anointing with oil, and some auxiliary ceremonials that emphasize spiritual purity and light.
What about that basic sacrament? Its structure flows directly from the Lord’s own baptism over two thousand years ago. Is there something else that’s meant to bookend the work of God described above?
The visible reality does offer some additional perspective. It represents something more within the subjective aspect of the person who is being baptized. Imagine a person diving into a lake. Why do they do it? Or imagine a person drowning. We’re told that at some point the person stops trying to swim. Why?
These scenarios can help us to dissect some obvious – but overlooked – internal blessings of the baptism. Like the questions above, and their answers, the choice to go under the baptismal water is one of personal choice toward something larger than themselves and a decision to offer total surrender to a new way of life.
The move toward baptism is born from an interior recognition that a former way of life is no longer sufficient. It’s realized that life has become stale. It no longer offers a depth of meaning or an adventure. Darkness is identified as the culprit and a person looks for salvation and hope and eventually discovers them in Jesus Christ.
The prospective Christian sees the life of the Lord, filled with love and mercy, and knows that they are called to it and will find in him the source of everything for which they’ve been searching.
And so, the decision for the baptismal water is a turning toward life, salvation, hope, love, mercy, and adventure. It’s a daring dive and a radical surrender. It’s accepting the power to become a new person, with a new way of life and a new approach to the world in Jesus Christ.
Since many believers are baptized as children, this internal conversion isn’t possible at the moment of baptism. But that doesn’t mean that it has to be missed. Baptismal conversion can be experienced by the believer at any moment and in a thousand different moments. This is why the sacrament of Confession has oftentimes been referred to as “the second baptism” since it offers the same opportunity to turn around, see the Christian alternative, and change one’s life for the better.
On this feast day of the Baptism of the Lord, therefore, we can recall that it was no accident that the Lord chose to begin his public ministry with a baptism. In this action, he was offering us a rebirth in himself, not only in sacramental sign and symbol, but in the graces of internal conversion that surround them.