January 13 is the feast of the Baptism of our Lord, the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism. It is an odd celebration because it actually points to something of a mystery: the mystery of the disappearing baptism. In the course of the development of the Gospel traditions about Jesus, his baptism slowly disappears. Now you see it, now you don’t.
In Mark, the earliest Gospel, the very first word is arche: beginning. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and the ministry of John and his baptism of Jesus inaugurates this good news. This beginning alludes to the “In the beginning” of the priestly creation narrative in Genesis, alerting us at the very start of Mark’s Gospel that this baptism is the inauguration of a new creation. God is making all things new in Jesus.
In Matthew’s Gospel, as in Luke’s, this new beginning is pushed back in the narrative to Jesus’ birth. His significance is apparent already at his nativity, and his later baptism becomes almost an embarrassment. In Matthew’s version, John is hesitant to baptize Jesus saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” He consents to baptize him only at Jesus’ express instruction, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus sounds almost Anglican here: the proper forms must be observed! But we’ve moved some distance from Mark’s image of the heavens being torn apart as a new world comes into being.
In the account we heard today, from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ baptism is marginalized further. The verses omitted from today’s reading refer to John’s arrest and imprisonment by King Herod. Jesus’ baptism occurs after John’s arrest, and so we are not told who baptized Jesus and the whole event is referred to in the past tense with barely a backwards glance. While all three of these accounts include the descent of the Holy Spirit and the announcement “This is by beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” in Luke this dramatic moment takes place while Jesus is praying after his baptism.
By the time of the Gospel According to John, the latest Gospel, the baptism has disappeared altogether. John the Baptist witnesses the Spirit descending like a dove upon Jesus, indicating that he is the One for whom John has been preparing the way, but this is not connected to water baptism at all. He serves as the forerunner to Jesus, bearing witness to his coming with the words, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John baptizes with water. Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and it is made abundantly clear which baptism is greater. We have a curious echo of this distinction in the reading from Acts, the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, which reports that the Samaritan converts who received water baptism did not receive the Holy Spirit until Peter and John laid their hands on them. Water baptism is commended, but it is in service to the manifestation of Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, in our lives.
So today we celebrate a baptism that, by the time of John’s Gospel, has disappeared completely. Why this disappearance in the course of the development of the Gospel traditions? It is an interesting question. Some commentators refer to rivalry between the disciples of John the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus. In response to this increasing tension, the later Gospel writers seek to downplay John’s significance and make his subordination to Jesus explicit.
As the theological understanding of Jesus’ divinity develops, the revelatory moment in which we discover his significance is pushed back further in time from the baptism, to the birth, to the “In the beginning was the Word” of John’s Gospel. Thus, the baptism of Jesus becomes a reinforcement of what we already know or becomes altogether unnecessary theologically speaking; it doesn’t add anything new to our understanding. Baptism doesn’t make Jesus anymore divine than he is already. In fact, in so far as it is a sign of forgiveness of sin, baptism, in the case of Jesus, who is without sin, becomes something of an embarrassment that needs to be explained away.
There is, however, another force at work in the disappearance of Jesus’ baptism. It is the identification of Jesus’ baptism with his crucifixion. This begins already in Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus asks James and John, who are jockeying for top dog status among his disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Here, Jesus is not looking back to his baptism with John, but forward to his Passion and to the martyrdom of James and John. The significance of water baptism lies in its being a sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus’ baptism disappears into the Cross.
It is worth noting that the Church understands martyrdom to be equivalent to baptism as a sign of initiation into the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is a “baptism of blood” as “well as a” baptism of water.” The Church also has taught that there is a “baptism of desire”: even an implicit desire to follow the way of Jesus suffices for salvation. What unites all of these forms of baptism is the commitment to follow Jesus in his practice of self-giving love for the sake of the healing of the world.
It is ironic that the meaning of Jesus’ baptism is revealed in the midst of the rivalry among his disciples, and that his baptism is nearly eclipsed altogether by the rivalry between his disciples and John’s disciples. Jesus’ death, into which we are baptized, is the death of rivalry. It is the refusal to become caught up in the violent dynamic of insiders and outsiders, superiors and inferiors, the attempt to secure our identity over and against others. It is the willingness to die an innocent victim in solidarity with outcasts and sinners, rather than to participate in their violent expulsion from the community for the sake of a false sense of security and superiority.
Through the Cross, we come to see that Jesus’ baptism, and our own, is an embrace of our identity as God’s beloved children, such that we can become transparent to the divine compassion and forgiveness that conquers death and brings healing to a broken world. Baptism does not confer or legitimate some exalted status that sets us apart from others. Rather, it puts to death the false sense of self that takes its identity from anything other than God’s unconditional, life-giving, forgiving love.
The heavenly announcement: “You are my Son, the Beloved” proclaimed at Jesus’ baptism is an allusion to Psalm 2:7, a reference to royal enthronement in the line of David. But Jesus receives no royal anointing in his baptism. Rather, he is the suffering servant in whom God delights of Isaiah 42:1: not a king on a throne, but a servant who is despised and rejected, one who stands in solidarity with a suffering humanity and a desecrated earth.
As Andrew Marr has noted, “Far from receiving a royal anointing that, by definition, could not be shared, Jesus received an anointing that, by definition, must be shared, that must be available to all. This means that Jesus’ anointing is still available to tax collectors and prostitutes and the ‘brood of vipers’ who engineered his death. That is to say, this anointing is even available to you and me.”
Jesus’ baptism disappears into the Cross – into a suffering world – and appears again in the Resurrected life that we share with him through our baptism into his death. His baptism finds its meaning in our own embrace of compassion and forgiveness, in our sharing in his identity as God’s Beloved, finding there the source of our own true self and security.
In a world torn apart by violent, greedy rivalries it is all too easy to see Jesus’ baptism – and our own – disappearing into an abyss of suffering; disappearing into the Cross. The Gospel writers are clear-eyed realists in so far as the developing traditions about Jesus replicate this very disappearance. What they also perceive, however, is the reappearance of this baptismal identity in the Body of Christ - in you and me – vivified by his risen Presence in our midst as the Forgiving Victim. We make his Presence visible to others through our practice of compassion and forgiveness, recognizing in them Jesus’ own identity as God’s Beloved.