What Is the Meaning of Jesus’ Baptism?

We Christians reflect upon and celebrate the baptism of Jesus in significant ways: liturgically, at the conclusion of the Christmas season; devotionally, as the First Luminous Mystery of the Rosary; and theologically, as the scriptural prism for the meaning of Christian baptism.

Narrated in each of the four Gospels, the baptism of Jesus marks the inauguration of His public ministry — His emergence from a life of seeming obscurity into a life of growing popularity on account of His preaching, miracles, healings and proclamation of mercy and forgiveness. Jesus steps into the Jordan River and into His mission of redemption through this public religious act. The descent of the dove symbolizes the anointing of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus receives as the Christ, Greek for “the Anointed One.”

Jesus’ Identity

This mark of divine blessing is accompanied by the voice of the Father in heaven who proclaims, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). This mysterious utterance reveals Jesus as the Son of God, the One sent from the Father to accomplish the salvation of the human race. In this dramatic scene we already grasp the identity and function of the Most Blessed Trinity — we see the Father as the One who begets and sends the Son to redeem the human race, the Son as the obedient servant who accomplishes the will of the Father, and the Holy Spirit as the Sanctifier who empowers the mission of redemption. This saving act of spiritual adoption draws us into the very life of God and His merciful grace.

Identification with Sinners

The retired Pope Benedict sees Jesus’ baptism as an expression of His fundamental submission to the will of the Father and His complete identification with sinners. By submersion in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus is publicly seen as one in need of repentance and forgiveness himself, although He has no need of it in actuality. Jesus is already embracing the enormous weight of humanity’s sinfulness, just as He will do again in a definitive and final way on the cross — labeled then as a criminal and blasphemer. The mysterious events at the Jordan River already foreshadow the saving acts of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Divine Condescension

In this downward descent, this complete identification with sinners, we grasp the radical humility of Jesus. He is the One who empties himself, not clinging to His equality with God but becoming a slave for the sake of our salvation.

Clarity of Mission

In Christian baptism, we become adopted children of the Father, members of the Church, the Body of Christ, and temples of the Holy Spirit. Baptism washes away our original sin and claims us for the kingdom of God. Through this saving sacrament, God fills us with sanctifying grace, with the fullness of the Trinitarian life. To understand the meaning and implications of our baptism is to fundamentally grasp our identity, vocation and mission as disciples of the Lord Jesus and members of the household of God.

Excerpts from: Bishop Donald J. Hying is the Bishop-elect for the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin.