On understanding today's feast as a Christmas mystery
While the Church celebrates our baptism as an Easter mystery, she celebrates the Lord’s baptism as a Christmas one.
The reason is easy to grasp. Whereas our baptism included a cleansing from sin, Christ’s baptism did not. He who did not know sin had no need of such cleansing. Accordingly, Christ’s baptism in the Jordan accomplished something different, something less to do less with Calvary and more to do with Bethlehem.
As when lying in the manger Christ was revealed as God and savior to the Magi, so when standing in the Jordan he was revealed as Messiah and Lord to Israel. The heavens opened, the Father spoke, and the Spirit appeared so that Christ himself would appear in what the Catechism calls a new “Epiphany” (par. 535).
Thus at his baptism the Lord turns to Jerusalem by recapitulating Bethlehem, where he first manifested his nature as light from light. Christ sets out for Jerusalem not by leaving Bethlehem behind but by drawing its mystery forward. The revelation of the child is now the revelation of the man, who sets out from home to fulfill his Father’s will.
Although the light of Bethlehem shines brightly at the Jordan, the shadows of Calvary are not completely dispersed by it. Light mixes with shadow to create the scene of today’s mystery, much as light mixed with shadow in Bethlehem before. As the myrrh given to the Christ child foreshadowed his death and burial, Christ’s descent into the waters prefigured the same, and with greater efficacy, for his presence in the waters made of them a sacramental representation of his tomb, into which all would be lowered in baptism, not to be left there but from which to be raised as fellow victors with Christ, inheritors of risen life. The Spirit’s anointing of Christ’s sacred humanity at the Jordan passes to us not only through these same waters, but also as the Catechism notes through the anointing of Confirmation (par. 1286). Christ aims the manifestation of his divinity in his adult flesh at rendering us mature witnesses of his person and work.
Today, the Christmas season closes with the commemoration of Christ’s epiphany at the Jordan. As we prayerfully consider this mystery, the question “What child is this?” becomes “What man is this?” Let us ask for the grace to answer confidently: “It is the Lord!” (cf. Jn 21:7).