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The Baptism of the Lord

Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord


Multitudes of people from all over Jerusalem and the region of Judea went through the desert wilderness to the Jordan river, one of the lowest points on the face of the each (some 1200 feet below sea level), really to the middle of nowhere, to hear John the Baptist preach and to be baptized by him. From Jerusalem, it would take many hours to walk there, through rugged terrain and desert hear (I did it back in 1981). They did so because they thought John might be the Christ (the Messiah), as we heard in Luke’s gospel today.


The Jordan River had important meaning for the Jewish People. The prophet Elijah was taken up to heaven at the Jordan River. Elijah’s successor, Elisha, began his prophetic ministry there. Naaman the Syrian was cured of his leprosy at this river. Most importantly, the Jordan River stood up most for the Jewish people because the Israelites, at the end of the Exodus, entered the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan River.


The Jewish people at Jesus’ time were expecting a new Exodus. They were awaiting the Messiah, a new king, who would rescue them from their oppressors like God rescued the Israelites from the Pharaoh in Egypt. So the fact that John the Baptist chose to baptize people in the Jordan River sent a powerful message: that the new Exodus was about to begin.


John was calling people back to the Jordan to re-enter the Promised Land. A new Joshua would lead them across the river. But John explained to the people that he wasn’t the new Joshua. He wasn’t the Messiah. He explained to the people that one mightier than he was coming who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.


Today is the feast in which we celebrate the arrival of the new Joshua at the Jordan River. The name “Jesus” is the Greek for “Joshua”, a name which means “God saves.” Jesus comes to lead Israel through the Jordan and to the new Promised Land. We celebrate today Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. Certainly he did not need baptism or repentance. He was without sin. But He went in the waters like all the other people to demonstrate his solidarity with them. He shows us that he came to unite himself to sinners whom He had come to save. This action, at the beginning of his public ministry, foreshadows how Jesus will bear the sins of all the world on the cross at the climax of his public ministry. The Catechism makes this point in its explanation of the Baptism of Jesus: “Jesus allows Himself to be numbered among the sinners; He is already the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Already He is anticipating the ‘baptism’ of His bloody death” (CCC 536).


At the moment of Jesus’ Baptism, Saint Luke tells us “heaven was opened.” The Holy Spirit came down upon Him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said to Jesus: “You are my beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.” This was an amazing scene! Heaven stands open above Jesus. He came to earth to open heaven for us. God the Father proclaims who Jesus is: His beloved Son with whom He is well pleased. And the third Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit, appears in bodily form like a dove. “The mystery of the Trinitarian God is beginning to emerge,” Pope Benedict wrote, “even though its depths can be revealed only when Jesus’ journey is complete.”


Later, at the end of His earthly mission, Jesus will send His disciples into the world to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We entered into Jesus’ own Baptism when we became Christians, when we were baptized. We became beloved sons and daughters of God the Father. The Holy Spirit came upon us and gave us new life. We truly became new creations.


Remember when creation was renewed after the great flood: Noah sent out a dove that hovered over the waters like the Spirit hovered over the waters at the start of creation. It is very significant that at Jesus’ Baptism, the Spirit descended in the form of a dove. So there is a new creation that was beginning when Jesus was baptized. With the sacrament of Baptism, we truly became a new creation, as Saint Paul teaches. We received new life. God’s Spirit filled our souls and transformed us with His supernatural life.


It is good on this feast to give thanks to God for our own Baptism. As we prayed in the Collect of today’s Mass – “grant that your children by adoption, reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, may always be well pleasing to You!”.


--Bishop Kevin Rhoades

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