In the spirit of the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which was celebrated yesterday, my heart has been on this first baptism and the eternal effects that moment had on all Christians. Obviously, Jesus didn’t need the waters of baptism to purify or cleanse Himself, so that tends to raise the question of why did Jesus get baptized? I was taught in my Baptist childhood that Jesus got baptized to set the example for all future Christians. This is more or less the extent of the answer given by Baptist and other evangelical Protestant leaders, simply because they believe that baptism is merely a symbolic act: an “outward sign of an inward decision”, comparable to the Sacrament of Confirmation for Catholics. Going underneath the water represents the former person dying, and the rising up out of the water shows the emergence of a “new creation in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17). And while evangelical Protestants are not typically big into ceremonies or ritualistic acts, this one is embraced because Christ did it first.
These types of Protestants have it halfway right. Jesus indeed was baptized to set precedent for the Sacrament, so we may know that it’s an act of obedience that is to be taken seriously. However, as Catholics, we know that it is not merely a symbol of having been born again, but the very moment in which we are born into new creations in Christ:
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. –John 3:5
Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins. –Colossians 2:12-13
He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, –Titus 3:5b
With this knowledge in mind, Jesus’ baptism does more than just set the example, but rather His baptism is the reason why water performs this miracle on our soul. Not because there is anything magical about the water; contrary to common Protestant disputes, we are not relying on a superstition about the power of water. Jesus’ baptism served to purify all the waters—current and future—so that through His baptism the waters will have the ability to cleanse our souls.
Ignatius of Antioch, student under the apostle John who wrote extensively about baptism in the third chapter of his Gospel, wrote about this miracle:
“For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary by the dispensation of God, as well as of the seed of David as of the Holy Spirit: he was born, and was baptized, that by himself submitting he might purify the water (Letter to the Ephesians, 18).
Other Church fathers also touched on this subject:
St. Ambrose of Milan: “The Lord was baptized, not to be cleansed himself but to cleanse the waters, so that those waters, cleansed by the flesh of Christ which knew no sin, might have the power of baptism. Whoever comes, therefore, to the washing of Christ lays aside his sins” (Commentary on Luke 2:83, A.D. 389).
St. Maximus of Turin: “Someone might ask, “Why would a holy man desire baptism?” Listen to the answer: Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water. For when the Savior is washed all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. Christ is the first to be baptized, then, so that Christians will follow after him with confidence” (Sermon on the Feast of the Epiphany, c. 430)
In our Catholic tradition, we incorporate beautiful symbols into our baptism ceremonies: the candles symbolize the light of Christ, the white garments symbolize new life, the chrism representing the Holy Spirit. But even without these elements, a baptism is still valid and effective in making one a born again, new creation, so long as it is done in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit and water is the element used. Water is the only mandatory physical component in a valid, saving baptism, because Christ’s baptism has blessed the water. The water saves because Christ’s baptism has instilled His grace within it, equipping it to purify our souls.
At my own baptism in 2004, standing alongside my Baptist pastor in the baptismal pool, I heard him say the words “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are buried in the likeness of his death…” and under the water I briefly went, rising up again a second later, “…and raised to walk in the newness of life.”
At the time, I thought what was taking place was a representative ceremony to show everyone that I have decided to follow Christ. I thought I was stepping into waters only because I was modeling what Jesus did first. But now I know that at the moment I rose up out of the water, I was truly being “raised to walk in the newness of life”: the “newness” being the new creation that I became at that moment, as the effects of Christ’s baptism 2,000 years ago still remaining in those waters purified my soul and welcomed me to the family of God.