Why do we hope?
Updated: Mar 15, 2022
The people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all, saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
The Baptism of the Lord that we celebrate today is not the same baptism that we received as children in front of our parents and Godparents, but there is a fundamental thing in common: forgiveness. Pope Benedict explains the difference.
Although it was called “Baptism” it did not have the sacramental value of the rite [of the sacrament of Baptism]; as you well know, it was actually with his death and Resurrection that Jesus instituted the sacraments and caused the Church to be born. What John administered was a penitential act, a gesture of humility to God that invited a new beginning: by immersing themselves in the water, penitents recognized that they had sinned, begged God for purification from their sins and were asked to change wrong behavior, dying in the water, as it were, and rising from it to new life (Pope Benedict XVI, 2011).
Now we can focus on forgiveness, even though Christ is the only one who did not need forgiveness.
Christ made a gesture of humility. The first thing that strikes us about the Baptism of the Lord is his humility. We try to appear better than those around us. It really hurts when we are looked down upon and especially when we are judged falsely. We feel a sense of victimhood and rebel against injustice. It seems curious then, that the Innocent One would go down to the river with the sinners to receive a baptism of repentance. It is not the moment when he institutes the sacrament of Baptism. This happens rather when he suffers and dies on the cross. It does prefigure, however, the sacrament of Baptism. Jesus participates in one of the religious experiences of his time so that later he can transform it into the first of the sacraments and the gateway to the Church.
Penitents were looking for a way to acknowledge their sin. At the beginning of every Mass, we acknowledge our sin. We pray: “I confess to Almighty God…” This is a way of calling to mind our own sins and failings. Somehow, it feels like this prepares us better for the living of the mystery of the unbloody sacrifice of Christ on the altar. We acknowledge our sin as well when we go to confession. We kneel before the priest in the confessional and accuse ourselves of our sins. When he raises his hand and pronounces the prayer of absolution: “I absolve you of your sins”, we know that we are truly forgiven. There is a certainty here that is worthy to be sought. “When people do wrong during conflicts, almost everyone wants to be forgiven for their transgressions. Many people want to forgive those who have hurt or offended them, particularly if they care about the relationship” (Worthington & Sandage, 2016, p. 10). What was happening at the Jordan with John the Baptist responded to a deep psychological need of the human person.
They wanted a new beginning. Their desire for forgiveness was overwhelming. Though they perhaps saw themselves as basically good people, honesty led them to see their own imperfections and failings. Going before John the Baptist and expressing their repentance seemed to promise release from their feelings of guilt and an introduction to the way of salvation. This is precisely what happens in the sacrament of Baptism, and again each time that we receive the sacrament of reconciliation. Sometimes, people balk at the idea that we have to confess our sins to a priest. But really, God is giving us a gift. We are able to receive forgiveness, which is the principal thing, but also even a psychological release from the guilt we are experiencing. At the end of the day, God’s revelation helps us to be more truly human. “The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light” (Gaudium et Spes, 22).
Looking at the scene of today’s Gospel can renew the hope in our hearts, helping us to see that salvation is possible. As we move out of the Christmas season and into Ordinary Time, we know that Christ came into the world to save it. We are called to be witnesses of this hope. Why did Christ participate in the Baptism of John? Even though he did not need to receive forgiveness, he is the person who gave forgiveness eventually through his Passion and Death. Sharing in human reality allowed him to elevate us to a divine reality. This is at the heart of our faith and is the reason for our hope.
Pope Benedict XVI. (2011). Homily 9 January 2011. https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/homilies/2011/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20110109_battesimo.html
Worthington, E. L., Jr., & Sandage, S. J. (2016). Forgiveness and spirituality in psychotherapy: A relational approach. American Psychological Association. https://doi-org.divinemercy.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/14712-000