The Baptism of the Lord – which for most churches today is one of the lesser celebrations of the Christian year – was of prime importance for the early church. One of the few events recounted in all four gospels, the details of each account are substantially similar. The details of this incident – particularly the clear subordination of John the Baptist to Jesus – served for the early church as an opportunity for teaching Christology, in opposition to various false teachers who portrayed Jesus as either pure spirit or less than divine. In submerging his body in the river in this very physical rite, Jesus takes his place with ordinary men and women. At the same time, in receiving the spectacular supernatural blessing from God, Jesus is shown to be spiritually unique.
Later generations have struggled with the question of whether Jesus’ allowing himself to be baptized is consistent with his sinless nature, particularly since John’s baptism is described as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4). This does not appear to be a question that troubled the early church; they would have been far more interested in the theophany and divine-benediction aspects of the story, and in John’s comment about one greater than himself coming after him. There is in fact no mention of Jesus confessing sins in the context of his baptism. We can view it as an act of solidarity with fellow-believers, in much the same way as Jesus seems to have undergone every other religious rite an observant Jew of his day would have participated in. Does Jesus himself need to be baptized? No. Do we need him to have been baptized? Yes.
The Baptism of the Lord is a prime opportunity to teach the significance of the sacrament of Baptism. For centuries – at least in churches where infant baptism is the norm – the sacrament has been relegated to a peripheral role, becoming at times little more than a celebration of childhood and family life. In church architecture, the baptismal font itself has too often been located in an inconspicuous place – or worse yet, it has taken the form of a small bowl that’s hidden away entirely, and brought out only when needed. The liturgical renewal movement has urged Christian believers to rediscover the centrality of our baptism – not just at the beginning of life, but through all our days. This is consistent with today’s text: if Jesus thought it important enough a rite to receive it himself, and if all four gospel-writers give it a central role, then who are we to let it degenerate into a celebration of babyhood?
George MacLeod, founder of Scotland’s Iona Community, is well-known for his concept of “thin places,” geographical locations where God seems to be especially present. Baptism is a sort of thin place, although in a non-geographical sense. We no longer espouse the sort of cosmology evident in the narratives of Jesus’ baptism – in which heaven is “up there” and we are “down here” – but still we can see the sacrament as an occasion in which God does create (if only for a moment) a gap in the boundary separating earth from heaven. As Martin Luther used to take comfort in recalling his own baptism, so we too – at any stage in life – can discern the gracious intervention of the Spirit in our baptisms, and consider it as a sign of God’s gracious accommodation to our needs.