How to Celebrate the Baptism of the Lord
After the joyous celebration of Christmas culminating in the Epiphany, we turn now to the start of Jesus’ public ministry, which begins at His baptism. When we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, we recall with joy and gratitude the amazing, sanctifying grace of our own baptism. It is fitting to spend time pondering the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism while at the same time engaging in rituals to claim again our own baptismal call on this holy day.
Why was Jesus baptized?
Three of the Gospel authors give us an account of Jesus’ baptism: Matthew (3:13-17), Mark (1:9-11), and Luke (3:21-22). As the longest account of this event, Matthew’s version offers perhaps the most insight into the mind-boggling question of why Jesus – who was free from sin – sought out John the Baptist to be baptized.
Matthew tells us that, when Jesus approached him at the Jordan River, John the Baptist “tried to prevent him” from being baptized. John’s question echoes one I have long wrestled with: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” What happens next offers the answer to this theological question. Prayerfully imagine this scene:
“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.” (Matthew 3:16-17)
Jesus needed the Spirit of God to be present with Him before He was tempted in the desert, before He began preaching and healing. Jesus knew that the Holy Spirit’s presence makes all the difference in our lives. He knew that, in baptism, He was being called to carry out the mission God willed for His life, and He knew that the Spirit we receive at Baptism would help Him to carry out this will.
Jesus is baptized not because He needs baptism; His baptism serves to confirm His identity as the beloved Son. Before Jesus goes forth into His public ministry of healing, miracle-working, and preaching, He hears the words we all need so desperately to know: the Father is well pleased with Him. In baptism, Jesus models for us that it is this very identity as Beloved which we must live out of and start from each day.
How can we celebrate His baptism?
In short, we can celebrate by not only reflecting on the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism and pondering this great mystery, but also by reflecting on and celebrating our own baptism.
At baptism, we receive the gift of sanctification by the Holy Spirit, a gift which calls us to walk in the light of Christ and live by His wisdom and example. In baptism we, too, claim our identity as beloved children of God, members of Christ’s body, belonging to a community of faith, freed from original sin. There is deep significance to baptism, as brief as the splash of water and the sign of the cross may be. In the symbols of baptism we can find many ways to celebrate the heritage of Christian Baptism begun by Jesus.
The Symbols of Baptism
1. Water is the most obvious and commonplace of the baptismal symbols. We rely upon it for our very existence and use it every day to quench thirst, clean, bathe, wash clothes, and cook. One way to keep the sacred feast of the Baptism of the Lord in mind all day is to pray in gratitude each time we use or consume water. If you have a holy water font in your home, you may also make a point of blessing each family member with the sign of the cross and a simple prayer. The Church authorizes parents to bless their children each day. This is a beautiful way to show your children that they are not only your beloved, but also God’s beloved.
2. Light of the baptismal candle is a beautiful image of who we are to be in the world as Christians. We are called to be lights in the darkness. It is so easy to see how desperately the world needs our light! Today, celebrate your own baptism by lighting your baptismal candle if you have it, or your child’s baptismal candle, and rejoicing in the warm glow of light it gives. Reflect on how you can “be the light” in your family, neighborhood, workplace, and greater community. If you are a parent or godparent, consider how you can fan the flame of faith in your child or godchild. Take time today to explain the gift of baptism, read the Bible or read about the lives of the saints together, and pray together.
3. A white garment is worn at baptism as a symbol of purity and the clothing of the baptized person in the life of Jesus. Don your best white clothing today and reflect on what you are “clothed in.” Saint Paul tells us explicitly what we should “put on” in his Letter to the Colossians 3:12-15:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.”
These are the virtues Christians are called to “wear on our sleeves.”
4. Sacred oil of the catechumen and chrism oil are used to anoint the baptized person, imbuing strength to resist evil and setting the person apart as a beloved child of God with a mission to be the light of Christ. Pray for the Holy Spirit to anoint you anew with the gifts and graces you need in this day to live out your baptismal call.
At Mass, when we celebrate the baptism of a new baby, we are given the opportunity to renew our own vows. It is appropriate to do so in your own home today, before or after Mass. You can find the baptismal vows here. However you choose to celebrate today, know that God is well pleased with your devotion and faith!