Today, the Roman Catholic Church continues its festal celebrations by commemorating the Baptism of the Lord. Therefore, let us reflect upon the Sacrament of Baptism in order to enter more fully into this mystery in our own lives.
Let us recall that Baptism is not a uniquely Christian practice, but one that was prevalent among the Jews of Jesus’ day. In order to gain a true understanding of baptism, it is necessary to reflect upon what it meant to the people from whom it originated. It was not uncommon for the Jews of Jesus’ day and the early Church to see in baptism a correlation with certain Old Testament events. Saint Peter, in his second epistle, explains that our baptism corresponds to the flood of Noah. Just as in those ancient days when all evil men perished under the waters of the great deluge, so in our baptism, the sinful man is destroyed (2 Pet 2:5). Further, our baptism can be seen as a new crossing of the Red Sea. As Saint Paul explains, the Israelites underwent a baptism when Pharaoh and the Egyptians were buried under the waters of the sea and the people of God were saved and called to walk in the new life which God had bestowed upon them (1 Cor 10:2). Also, we may see our baptism as a type of Israel’s crossing of the Jordan River after forty years of wandering in the desert. Just as Joshua led Israel into the Promised Land through the waters of the Jordan, so each of us who is baptized is led by Jesus into the promised land of the Church.
These Old Testament prefigurements of Christian Baptism receive their full meaning, however, at the Baptism of the Lord. What happened when Jesus was baptized? The Fathers of the Church give three answers.
- First, by entering into the water of the Jordan River, Jesus sanctified it and made the water of baptism a place for the working of the Holy Spirit.
- Second, because baptism among the Jews was seen as a ritual act of death and burial of the old man, Jesus confronted the Ruler of Death in the baptismal waters of the Jordan, that he might defeat death and bestow life upon all of creation. It was at the Baptism of Christ that Our Lord met his adversary of old, the Devil, and struck a decisive blow against him. By his baptism into death, the giver of life destroyed the power of death: “death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9).
- Finally, in his baptism, Jesus met all of us who were bound to death through the sin of our first parents, and taking us by the hand through the instrumentality of the priest, each one of us was raised from the dead, out of the baptismal waters. Through the resurrection of Christ, the tomb of the baptismal font becomes the womb of the Church, which gives new life to all who approach this Holy Sacrament.
Saint Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, gives the following catechesis,
“Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Through baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life. If we have been united with him though likeness to his death, so shall we be through a like resurrection” (1 Cor. 6: 3-4).
Therefore, as Saint Paul explains, baptism is a sacramental act whereby we are mystically joined to the death and resurrection of Christ.
In his baptism, Jesus has reversed the curse of the fall. In his baptism, Christ has opened for the faithful that garden of delight closed by sin. In his baptism, Christ has restored Adam to all that he lost through disobedience. Let us who have been baptized into Christ see the ancient deceiver conquered. Let us who have been baptized into Christ see the baptismal waters as the place of sanctification for our souls. Let us who have been baptized into Christ see man once more enter into Paradise and hear the Father’s words of mercy, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22).