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On the feast day of the Baptism of the Lord, we consider the question of Christ’s baptism. As one without sin, why would Jesus need the cleansing of baptism? Was the baptism offered by John, in the Jordan, the baptism we celebrate today? What happened and what was changed in and through the Baptism of the Lord?
Then 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.
The whole teaching and work of John was in preparation for Christ: just as it is the duty of the servant… to prepare the matter for the form accomplished by the [master]. Therefore the baptism of John did not confer grace, but only prepared the way for grace. Christ was baptized, not that He might be cleansed, but that He might cleanse.
The symbolism of water signifies the Holy Spirit’s action in Baptism, since after the invocation of the Holy Spirit it becomes the efficacious sacramental sign of new birth: just as the gestation of our first birth took place in water, so the water of Baptism truly signifies that our birth into the divine life is given to us in the Holy Spirit.
Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: “Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water and in the word.”
The Greek word μυστήριον was translated into Latin by two terms: mysterium and sacramentum. In later usage the term sacramentum emphasizes the visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation which was indicated by the term mysterium. In this sense, Christ himself is the mystery of salvation: “For there is no other mystery of God, except Christ.”
As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power.
Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.