In the Jordan, Jesus begins his public ministry and his first act is in solidarity with all of us
Benedict begins his first volume of his examination of Jesus’ life not with the infancy, but with the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry: His baptism in the Jordan.
Benedict discusses the background context for the scene—the practice of ritual washings in Judaism, their connection to forgiveness of sin, and the unique nature of John the Baptist’s ministry—and takes up the common question, “Why would Jesus need to be baptized if He is sinless?”
In answering that, he draws out a connection I had never considered before.
In our understanding of the Christian sacrament of baptism, Benedict notes, entering into the waters evokes both life and death.
It calls to mind death because “the ancient mind perceived the ocean as a permanent threat to the cosmos, to the earth; it was the primeval flood that might submerge all life.” (p. 15-16)
But, Benedict adds, “the flowing waters of the river are above all a symbol of life,” so that “immersion in the water is about purification, about liberation from the filth of the past that burdens and distorts life—it is about beginning again, and that means it is about death and resurrection, about starting life over again anew.” (p. 16)
Christian baptism has had this meaning developed over centuries, but Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan “implicitly contains” this idea, and points toward it. By Jesus undergoing a ritual for sinners, He is giving a “Yes to the entire will of God” which “also expresses solidarity with men, who have incurred guilt but yearn for righteousness.” (p. 17)
This is the first time in which Jesus stands in our place, the innocent and just man in the place of sinful humanity, taking on to Himself what we must undergo.
This act at the beginning of Jesus’ mission then looks forward to its culmination in His death and resurrection, His going into the tomb and rising to new life. Thus, in the light of these salvific events, Benedict writes, “the Christian people realized what happened. Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders: he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture was an anticipation of the Cross.” (p. 18)
Benedict ties the thread by concluding “this also explains why, in his own discourses, Jesus uses the word baptism to refer to his death.” (p. 18)
We see this connection reflected in the shape of the liturgical year. Today’s feast, the Baptism of the Lord, marks the end of the Christmas season, the time of commemorating Christ’s coming into the world. Yet it also points to the end of the Lenten season, the beginning of His Passion and the holy events of the Easter Triduum. His life foretells His death—and not only His death, but also His resurrection. The end of Christmas already has us looking toward Holy Week.
Since you are here…
…we’d like to have one more word with you. We are excited to report that Aleteia’s readership is growing at a rapid rate, world-wide! Our team proves its mission every day by providing high-quality content that informs and inspires a Christian life. But quality journalism has a cost and it’s more than ads can cover. We want our articles to be accessible to everyone, free of charge, but we need your help. To continue our efforts to nourish and inspire our Catholic family, your support is invaluable. Become an Aleteia Patron today for as little as $3 a month. May we count on you?