In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, recounting for us the Baptism of the Lord, we hear the voice of the Father, resounding from heaven, telling Jesus: “you are my beloved Son; with you, I am well pleased.” (Lk 3:22) This loving declaration is the key of what happens in this moment, helping us to understand both why Christ undergoes Baptism, and what happens when we are baptized in our turn.
First, we have to consider why Christ was baptized. In another Gospel account of this moment, John the Baptist himself draws attention to this strange event, saying “I need to be baptized by you.” (Mt 3:14) John’s baptism, we are told, is a baptism of repentance, thus Jesus has no need to present himself—he has no sins. Yet, he tells John “let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Christian tradition understands this moment as Christ undergoing baptism in order to cleanse us, not himself. He fulfills righteousness by repenting for our sin, in our place, not by repenting for any sin on his own part. Jesus later calls his Passion on the Cross his true “baptism,” so this moment is also a foreshadowing of his going into the water of death for our sake and rising out of it to glorified life. The baptism of Jesus is, then, a sign of the salvation from sin that he brings to all of us by offering himself up to death. The love burning in the heart of Jesus, which leads him to make this offering for us, makes him infinitely lovable, and draws down from heaven the joy-filled declaration of the Father: “you are my beloved son.”
But what about our baptism? How do the words of the Father, spoken to the Son, relate to us?
To understand, we must review what happens in our own baptism. The day we undergo baptism, we ritually enter the water of death with Christ, and pass through it to new life, which is to say, Christ lives his whole life in us. In that moment, we are joined to the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as adopted children of the Father. We are made one with Jesus in such a way that everything we have becomes his, and everything he has becomes ours. He takes on himself our human nature, our crosses, our sufferings, our death, and even the burden of our sins. In turn, he gives us a share, by grace, in his place as Son of the Father, heir of the Kingdom of Heaven, in his priesthood, prophetic office, and kingship, as well as in his enlightenment and innocence, and even in his divine nature. In short, we become members of his body. St. Augustine, when teaching about this union with Christ in baptism, goes so far as to say that when a baptized Christian, in a state of friendship with God, speaks, the Father hears the voice of Jesus the Son.
Thus, when the Father’s voice says to Jesus, “you are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” it speaks also to us. Christ’s baptism both shows us who he is as our Savior, and shows us who we become at our own baptism: members of Christ, and adopted children of God the Father. We have, as Christians, been given such a gift, a God who loves us enough to offer himself on our behalf, and a share in his life, identity, and nature. May a response of love lead us, in deep gratitude, to live up to the eternity we have received.