This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 3:13–17:
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him. After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Bear with me on this, because as a Star Trek fan, today’s Gospel reminds me of, er … one of the worst moments of the franchise. Forgive me as I recount The Film That Must Not Be Mentioned, 1989’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. After a convoluted series of plot twists and embarrassing vignettes (such as Uhura’s desert fan dance), Spock’s never-before-mentioned half-brother uses what can best be called amateur psychotherapy to convince the crew to let him hijack the ship. He wants to take it to the center of the galaxy, where no man has gone before, to literally find God and paradise. Kirk seems impervious to psychotherapy, however (what a shock!), and manages to regain control of the ship just before they arrive.
They meet something on the planet beyond the, er, Great Beyond, who also wants to hijack the Enterprise. (I guess it beats blowing it up again.) Everyone seems kinda groovy with that too until Kirk asks, “What does God need with a starship?” McCoy scolds Kirk, “You don’t ask the Almighty for his ID!”, at which point “God” shoots lightning bolt up Kirk’s backside. This turns out to be the answer that unlocks the stupor into which the most experienced and storied crew in Star Fleet have fallen for two hours, and they return the favor by shooting some phasers at “God.” That seems to do the trick, as it turns out that this entity is not even up to Klingonian levels of fight.
So why bring this up, other than to vent 31 years of frustration? (Don’t knock the healing power of venting 31 years of frustration, by the way.) It’s because we have a very similar question in this exchange between John the Baptist and Jesus. Fortunately, we get a much better answer than lightning bolts and phasers, and this time the real God shows up, too.
John the Baptist has preached in the desert for years at this point for the need to repent and be washed of sin. The baptisms taking place in the Jordan are meant to ready the people for the coming of Christ, allowing them to open their hearts to His Word by removing the sins that cloud their judgment. His preaching has already drawn the suspicion of the temple authorities, who question his authority to teach and to proclaim sins forgiven.
Imagine John’s consternation at finding Jesus as one of the supplicants looking to be baptized. John clearly understands Jesus’ true nature, having been anointed a prophet to prepare His way. The coming of Jesus would establish a kingdom of peace and the defeat of sin, not through the actions of men but through God’s own grace. Thus when Jesus asked to be baptized, John rightly asked the obvious question: What need does God have to be baptized?
Even in the theory of baptism that is in place to this day, it’s a very good question. Baptism washes away the flaw of original sin, although it doesn’t eliminate its aftereffects. It gives us the opportunity to receive the Holy Spirit most fully, and to order our hearts away from the selfish materialism that would otherwise dominate them.
However, that necessity of baptism for salvation doesn’t apply to Jesus. Mary was born of an immaculate conception, in which the Lord intervened to eliminate original sin as it applied to Mary. Jesus was then conceived through the Holy Spirit with Mary’s permission, an act of complete acquiescence to the will of God — the antithesis of original sin. This series of acts ensured that Jesus’ human nature was not corrupted by original sin, and in fact His mere existence defeats it.
So why be baptized? The sacraments are His signs for us, not for His own sake. However, Jesus condescends to be baptized in the same manner in which He condescends to become man. He does this precisely because it is for our sake, not His own, just as He did in coming to us in human form as the Word of God incarnate. He lived among us to establish the manner in which salvation perfects humanity, and then at the end He sacrificed Himself to show how salvation defeats death. His baptism is another condescension by which Jesus demonstrates how we must open ourselves to the Holy Spirit by being reborn in it — going through the death of our sinful natures and coming to life in the waters of salvation.
This teaches us another lesson, too, about our own nature. Too often we want to believe that we can achieve salvation on our own terms and under our own steam. Not to get too Star Trek V-ish, but I certainly tend to approach it on a “let’s hijack a starship to get to heaven” basis at times. It’s tough to admit that we can’t do this on our own, even for those of us who believe; we stubbornly refuse to ask for God’s help in forming ourselves. Instead of preparing ourselves for salvation, we end up getting in our own way. In participating in the baptism at the Jordan, Jesus teaches us that we don’t have the power to save ourselves. It takes the Lord’s grace and our active cooperation with it for us to form ourselves toward the Lord.
And what happens when Jesus goes through the ritual? The Lord makes an appearance in an iconic theophany, in which the dove becomes the symbol of the Holy Spirit, which is the manifestation of the caritas love of the Trinity that flows between Father and Son. Baptism prepares us to join in that caritas, the utterly selfless love which the Father has for all of us, but which we have the freedom to choose or reject. The full Trinity makes an appearance at the baptism in this Gospel as a sign of hope and joy, not for Jesus’ benefit but for ours.
As our Christmas season ends, let us focus on that tremendous gift we have received through Christ’s condescension and caritas. It certainly beats remembering Star Trek V.
The front-page image is a detail from “The Baptism of Christ” by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1475. On display at the Uffizi Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.