One of the odd things about the Church Calendar is that the baby Jesus grows up very fast after his birth on December 25, his circumcision into the Covenant on January 1, and the visit of the Wise Men to the stable in Bethlehem on January 6, the Epiphany. Here we are just a few days after the Epiphany, and here is Jesus all grown up, striding off into the wilds of the desert to find his cousin, John the Baptizer. This is his first adult decision, and his first adult appearance in public: presenting himself to John for the baptism of repentance.
John the Baptizer comes on stage, as it were, way back at the beginning of Advent in his prophetic role, the one who preaches in thunderous tones that it is time for repentance and return to covenant relationship with God, because in his view, at least, these are the last days of life on earth as the people have known it: the Messiah is coming. But here he is today in his other role: to such people as believed him and repented -- and there seem to have been many of them -- John administered a ritual washing in rivers and streams, a sign of their repentance from sin and return to the Covenant between God and the People of God.
Now, why on earth would Jesus go out into the wilderness to be baptized with this ritual cleansing of repentance and return? After all, if Jesus is who we say he is, this is the Son of God who was "in every way as we are, except without sin," as one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it. This is the Savior, Christ the Lord, who takes the burden of our sins into his own sinless life, and puts them to death when he himself dies on the Cross. Surely Jesus did not need a baptism of repentance to mark the beginning of his adult public life and ministry? So what is going on here?
There are complex historical and theological responses to these questions, but we need only cut to the bottom line. In the words of St. Paul, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself...," [2 Cor.5:19]. To put this in another way: in everything that Jesus says and does, God is at work, showing us how closely and intimately God relates to human beings who do sin, and who do need to repent and turn again. Jesus stands in the Jordan River, just as he lay in the stable as a baby, just as he will hang on the Cross of his death, because God is in Christ, identifying himself with us in every aspect of our births, lives and deaths, and in solidarity with us. This Jesus is, we say, "Emmanuel," -- God-with-us -- God for us, God with us, most especially in the depths of our sin, most especially in our deepest need for repentance.
So Jesus does not hesitate to join the crowd of repentant sinners at the River Jordan who are repenting and returning to right relationship with God in the framework of Covenant and Law. No, Jesus does not need to repent. But, by showing his baptism by John, the Gospel-makers show Jesus doing what God in Christ always does: stands by us, stands with us, stands for us in our great need for repentance.
That is the Good News of our salvation, and this is why the scene of Jesus' baptism includes a "theophany," a manifestation of God. It is as though God is, indeed, so excited and joyful about Jesus' first public act of solidarity with sinners, that God rips through the very fabric of creation with the authoritative word of God's voice: "This is my Son, my beloved." The new creation in Christ is thus identified with the original creation called into existence by the same voice and word of God. It is as though God is saying, this is the very flesh and blood of my Covenant with you, standing in obedient solidarity with you. And then comes the sign of the Holy Spirit, the small flying dove which comes to rest on Jesus as light as "a feather on the breath of God," to borrow a phrase from Abbess Hildegard of Bingen. When Noah was anxiously waiting out the great Flood in his legendary Ark, it was this gentle flying dove which winged its way back with an olive branch in its beak, giving our ancestors the pledge of peaceful, fruitful dry earth.
Now the dove graces the scene of Jesus' baptism with a small pledge of the glorious fullness of divine energy that nudges us into repentance and sustains us in the new creation. As many thoughtful people have noticed, the signs of Trinitarian life are in this picture: the voice of the Father, the presence of the Son, the movement of the Holy Spirit, gathered in one place at one and the same time in the baptism of Jesus by John, for repentance.
So we may conclude that this scene, like the Gospels themselves, represents a truly blessed assurance for us. The signs are there that this God is both side by side with us in the midst of our sins and wickedness, and for us in that great generosity of Spirit which, like the father of the Prodigal Son, meets us in our repenting, with forgiveness already there waiting for us. Of course we want to be faithful to our catechism and church teaching, and acknowledge that our own baptisms have much more to do with Jesus' death and resurrection than they do with this scene of the two cousins at the River Jordan. But that is for us to ponder later on, as we approach Easter. Meanwhile we can give thanks for this most gracious incarnation of God in Christ, who stands faithfully with us and lovingly for us as we learn, the hard way, to embrace a repentant life. Amen.