Behold, I tell you a mystery are words of St. Paul in his first letter to his converts at Corinth (15:51), and they are most applicable to our consideration of today’s celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord. Let us first of all look at John and his work of baptising or immersing. For preference I will use the word “immersing” because John was not baptising in the way we understand the word as disciples of Jesus. John had been sent to warn the People of God that a great judgement was imminent, and that they would have to mend their ways if they were to be able to survive that judgement. He had a special message for those who, having fallen away from Temple and synagogue worship and daily obedience to the Law, now wanted to return to faithful Jewish practice. In keeping with the seriousness and the urgency of the situation, John proclaimed to those now coming in crowds to hear him preaching by the banks of the river Jordan that merely ritual immersions or lustrations were not enough: those who were truly repentant needed to bring forth fruit worthy of such repentance by actually starting to do what was right and just; they must, he said, first of all bring forth visible, tangible, proof of sincere repentance, for God would be satisfied with nothing less than true righteousness, personal as well as ritual. Those aware of, and sorry for, their personal failings had to make it clear to the Lord and, initially, to John also, that they were sincerely turning away from evil: being resolutely intent on both amending their future ways and making a measure of present atonement for past misdeeds. God alone could cleanse a sinful heart, John proclaimed, and, He would indeed cleanse the heart of those who, in accordance with John’s exhortation, showed their repentance by sincerely taking upon themselves the practice of righteousness. Once the heart had been cleansed by God, then the immersion they were seeking from John could profitably purify the body; for bodily purity was of the utmost importance to all Jewish believers who wished to be acceptable to God through obedience to His Law. The whole person, inside and out, had to be prepared to do the whole of God’s will, which demanded right human behaviour together with true and acceptable divine worship.
We now turn our thoughts to Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all tell us about the immersion of Jesus by John in the Jordan. Only two of them, however -- Matthew and Luke -- tell us about the birth of Jesus; Mark and John do not mention the manner of His birth, presumably because for them, Jesus’ public significance only began with this wondrous event of His immersion in the Jordan. How are we to understand these differences in approach? We should note that although Matthew and Luke tell us of the conception and birth of Jesus, they make no mention whatsoever of the growing Child doing any marvels in the power of the Spirit: all such mighty deeds only come after His immersion or baptism; in that respect they are at one with Mark and John.
So we can see that although Jesus was indeed conceived of the Virgin Mary by the working of the Holy Spirit, and given the name Immanuel, ‘God with us’, as Matthew and Luke tell us:
The angel said to Mary, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God;” (Luke 1:35)
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us”; (Matthew 1:23)
nevertheless, for both Matthew and Luke, the Child had -- like every other child -- to grow slowly, through childhood to youth and through youth to manhood, before He could finally attain the maturity required for His role as Saviour. This St. Luke (2:52) explicitly tells us:
Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.
As He grew thus, Jesus became filled ever more and more with the desire to know, love, and serve His heavenly Father, as we recognize from the occasion when -- still physically and psychologically only a youth -- He was lost to Mary and Joseph in Jerusalem. There, He was totally entranced listening to and talking with the doctors and scribes in the Temple about the God of Israel Whom He recognized as His own true Father. He had forgotten all about returning to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph, and wholeheartedly desired and was prepared -- even then and there as, possibly, a fresh ‘bar mitzvah’ youth -- to begin His public witness to His heavenly Father. Only after being found in the Temple by Mary and Joseph and admonished by His mother, was He willing to be led back to His home in Nazareth – without, in the least, apologizing for such commitment to His heavenly Father.
He grew not only before God but also before and with respect to humankind around Him, becoming, in the process, ever more aware of His own humanity which, though sublimely pure and holy, could not as yet enable Him to do all that He longed to do for His Father and all that needed to be done for His People.
Eventually however, having reached full maturity in His manhood, Jesus left home in Nazareth and sought out John immersing in the Jordan all those dissatisfied with themselves in their relationship with the God of Israel, because that was the one place in all Israel where God was most providentially present and active, and because He, Jesus, was totally consumed with longing to actually begin the mission demanded of Him by the very nature of His Being, Son of God and Son of Man: a mission for the glory of God and His Chosen People, and for the salvation of mankind. Ultimately however, He sought out John in response to His Father’s secret inspiration – Whose loving appreciation of and condescension towards human nature is most wonderfully to be seen in His ‘dealings’ with Mary the Virgin of Nazareth and Elizabeth, with John the Baptist here beside the river Jordan, and with Mary the Mother at Cana -- that He might, on this occasion of John’s immersing of Jesus, publicly commission His beloved Son for His Messianic ministry and also show His Fatherly appreciation of John’s lifelong work of preparation for this manifestation of His Son, before it would be brought to its brutal earthly conclusion in the dank, dark, solitude of a royal dungeon.
Now we are prepared to understand the meeting of John the Baptist and Jesus at the banks of the Jordan. Jesus stepped forward, manifesting not only His longing to glorify His Father but also His personal awareness of His human nature’s enduring inability to fully support Him in that. He needed His Father’s ‘sending’! In that sense Jesus was the first fruits of all those who were, are, and ever will be, repentant; because Jesus was totally, absolutely, aware, of what none of us are ever sufficiently aware, namely, that God alone is good, and that human nature can do no such good of itself. The failure to appreciate our natural nothingness leads ordinary sons and daughters of Adam into sins of all sorts; with Jesus it simply made Him long, with excruciating desire, for that crowning fulfilment which only His Father’s sending of Himself and Gift of the Holy Spirit would impart.
The Father was indeed well pleased with His Son. He had sent His Son made flesh to glorify His Name and save His People from their sins; and, in pursuance of this aim, the Child’s growth in holiness had not in any way separated, cut Him off, from men; on the contrary, His gradual human development had been such that, together with an ever greater awareness of and longing for His Father, He experienced an ever deeper compassion for His People and understanding of the trials and sufferings of mankind. The God-given-Child was now on the threshold of becoming the perfect God-made-Man His Father had planned; and so, in the sublime fullness and perfection of His humility, He stood before John the Baptist beside the river Jordan; and although John was allowed the fulfilment -- in God’s condescension -- of immersing Jesus, it was the Father in heaven Who embraced His Son rising from the waters, and Who bestowed on Him the Gift which is the Holy Spirit to ultimately prepare and finally empower Him for the task which lay immediately before Him: His conquest of the devil in his own homeland, the desert, and His Messianic proclamation of God’s salvation to Israel. And so, as we heard in the Gospel:
It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon Him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.”
Thus Jesus was presented to God’s people as the sinless leader of all those who have become aware of their human needs and inadequacies, and in that He was and is at one with all repentant sinners of all times: for although He did not, and indeed, could not, share their personal sins -- sin being totally alien to His nature and Personal character -- nevertheless, their human needs and personal, godly, aspirations are to be found in Him, sublimely transfigured and transcended.
He rose up out of the immersing waters and His heavenly Father embraced Him, as the Psalmist (19:5) puts it, like a strong man ready to run his race. John had indeed prepared the Chosen People for Him Who was to come; and now, here on Jordan’s bank, the Father confirmed the original gift of His Son, by His messianic bestowal of the Spirit, thus enabling Jesus -- the messianic Son of Man -- to take up the baton for the final stage in God’s saving plan as foretold:
He shall stand and feed His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. (Micah 5:4)
Jesus was, indeed, become the good Shepherd, Who would lead His flock in full awareness and understanding of their human weakness, revealing to them heavenly things with divine authority, whilst empowering them to walk along His way by granting them a share in His own Spirit. And thus, ultimately, will He lead all of us who persevere in docility to His guidance and obedience to His teaching, into our glorious fulfilment as children of God: in Him, and with Him, become co-heirs to eternal life in the heavenly Kingdom of His Father and our Father.