Why was Christ Baptized? (The LONG answer)

Today the Church commemorates the occasion on which John baptized Christ. This commemoration inevitably gives rise to the question: Why did Jesus go to John to be baptized? After all, Christ did not need to repent of sin and be cleansed.

Confronted with this eminently reasonable question, I have frequently proposed the following: The waters of John’s baptism did not cleanse Christ. To the contrary, by going into the Jordan, Christ conferred on water the capacity to give saving grace through the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

I have not and do not propose this answer by myself. Countless saintly catechists of the past have proposed as much, including St. Ambrose of Milan. And I do not propose this as the answer, but rather as an answer—i.e., a true, though not exhaustive, answer.

Here, however, is the problem. The response I give can be greeted in three ways.

1. Accepted as coherent.

2. Accepted as a viable statement of Catholic piety, but dismissed as far as being an historically defensible assertion.

3. Rejected as a kind of theological fantasy that does not correspond with the facts of history.

If your reaction is #1, feel free to give up on this little essay, which will doubtless prove to be tedious.

#2 fails to correspond to the case. At one point in time, Jesus entered the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Although water has suggested itself to practically every religion as a means to signify interior purification, it does not in and of itself possess the virtue for actually effecting the cleansing of the soul. The Lord’s descent into the Jordan either had an effect on water’s sacramental capacity, or it didn’t.

Any sacramental capacity which water has comes from something Jesus Christ did or does. To claim that water has any sacramental capacity from any other source would be foreign to the Christian faith.

So this leaves us with the business of dealing with the internally coherent position of #3. It doesn’t make sense to say that Christ’s baptism in the Jordan at a given moment in history did not in and of itself have an effect on water, but that the Church can say that it did, because religion and historical inquiry can contradict each other, and it doesn’t matter.

It does matter. We are talking about an assertion regarding the effect of a historical event. It makes more sense to say, “Father, I simply deny that Christ’s baptism had the effect on water that you say it did.”

Good. Thank you for being straight with me, position #3. Let’s break this whole business down some more.

a. I do not claim to have a precise answer to this question: What exactly is the effect that Christ’s baptism had on water? Water could not be used to baptize in the New Covenant if Christ had not been crucified, risen again, ascended into heaven, and poured out the Holy Spirit.

In other words, the effect on water of Christ’s baptism would have been naught, but for the unity of Christ’s entire pilgrim life, which, taken as a whole, has given grace to the world. That said, Christ did go into the Jordan, and it had the effect that I say it did.

b. That said, I am not saying that Christ had to go into the Jordan to give us the sacrament of Baptism. I am just saying that, in fact, He did.

c. It is impossible to separate the Catholic faith from the events of history. Jesus is a man who lived a human life on earth. If He had not done this, we would not have our religion.

So, to get back to the event…Christ went to be baptized by John. This certainly occurred. Even historians who argue that some of the events narrated in the gospels did not occur—even they agree that Christ was baptized by John. The reasoning is: Why would the Apostles make this event up? Being baptized makes Christ look non-Lordly and non-divine, so it must have happened. A reasonable line of thought, as far as it goes.

So it occurred. Now, no reasonable person would claim to produce a complete digest of what motivated Jesus to go to John to be baptized. John himself, according to St. Matthew’s gospel, asked Christ why He had come, and the Lord gave an unclear answer which admits of countless interpretations. (“Let it be so, to fulfill all righteousness.”)

So no one can reasonably propose to explain definitively why Christ went to be baptized. But He did go, and He had his reasons. Perhaps we can attain some insight into them.

Did He go to repent of His sins and start fresh—like all John’s other penitents? On the face of it, this would be the simplest explanation, and therefore the most convincing. But if this was Jesus’ motivation, then a lot of other aspects of the event make no sense.

Hold on. “Other aspects of the event.” Like what St. John said to Christ. Like the context in which this event occurred in the life of Christ. Like what happened after the baptism. (The heavens opening, the Father speaking, the dove descending.)

We have, then, to deal with this question: Are the gospels, taken as wholes, reliable historical accounts? When we read them, are we reading reliable historical documents?

On the one hand, a ‘gospel’ defies categorization as a type of little book. A gospel presents Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah to the reader, using literary techniques which—again—no one can claim exhaustively to enumerate and explain.

But: Don’t we have to say that a sine qua non of gospeling is the accurate presentation of the facts about the life Christ lived on earth? What good would a gospel writer do who made things up about what the One he presents as the Savior said and did? Makes no sense as a human enterprise—false gospel writing, that is. (The Holy Spirit used men acting as men to provide us with the words of Sacred Scripture.)

Now, of course, people do a lot of things that don’t make sense. If Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote falsehoods, then they are not to be believed at all, and the historical record regarding Jesus of Nazareth is scant indeed.

Or: Given that the four different accounts cohere to such a great degree, the more reasonable approach is to trust these books.

So, back to the event: Christ did not come to John as a penitent. Jesus, the sinless man, came to the water.

Can we prove that this sinless man who came to the Jordan is God? No, we cannot prove it. We can offer evidence of His divinity, but not proof. On the other hand, there is nothing unreasonable about holding that He is God.

If this man is God, could He give sacramental grace to water by stepping into the Jordan? Yes.

Is there, therefore, any reason to doubt that, when Jesus was baptized by John, He gave virtue to water, which it did not have before, and that this act constitutes an essential part of the divine plan for the salvation of souls?

No. No reason to doubt it. The pious man accepts what St. Ambrose taught about why Christ was baptized. So does the reasonable man.

2 thoughts on “Why was Christ Baptized? (The LONG answer)

  1. Thank you for stating this all so simply: Christ sanctified the water, giving the rite, the ritual of Baptism SACRAMENTAL power, supernatural cleansing (better than Clorox). We remember The Ark, God’s Sacred Presence entering the Jordan and stopping its flow; Naaman the Syrian being cleansed of his leprosy, and now Christ, the marriage of God and man, stepping into the Jordan to bring his Divine cleansing to us through the simple, familar gesture of water, rather than the terror of Divine Fire that consumed the sacrifice, altar, and water on Mt. Carmel. I remember a friend at college explaining the Marionite rite of immersing hot coals in the Baptismal waters to symbolize this Purifying action of Christ’s Baptism – the Divine Fire entering the waters of the Jordan – I hope I got that straight, it’s been ten or twelve years, but it was such a sharp, foreign image that I couldn’t forget it. But I couldn’t comprehend it for some foolish reason.
    It really is unreasonable to think that Christ, for whom and through whom all things exist, could not change what he touched. He came to recreate us, so of course he had to touch sacramentally the things we need most: water, bread and wine, marriage, birth…as well as things we avoid most: poverty, suffering, death…and redefined “friend” and “neighbor”. But I’m getting sidetracked. And over my head.

    Really, my questions: In college, I had the horrible experience of having my faith in scripture unraveled by a nun who was all for historical accuracy and treating the bible as literature to be interpreted by criticisms – historical, particularly. I forget the other three types. She stripped scripture of its miracles – like the Red Sea crossing was just over a mucky mire, nothing to drown anybody, and if the Exodus had really happened, there would be a record of it in egyptian history. And LOTS of other stuff – to include Christs miracles being fibs by the Apostles and Gospel writers. The only thing that I clung to was the Eucharist – which meant the other miraculous stuff HAD to be true. And it took violent efforts of stubborness to keep believing in Scripture’s miracles. So, where do these scholars get off saying that Scripture isn’t historical? How can they claim to be Catholic when they strip Christ of all that it means to be Divine? “They” seem to think the Catholic Church is founded on tradtional legends and mistranslations and other beloved human mistakes – as if there were a set of “catholic facts” and “REAL facts” for history. Any thoughts????

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