In our world today, baptism means a particular something to many Christians: It is an outward sign of the welcoming of people into the church and of God’s forgiveness of sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “through baptism, we are eased from sin and reborn as sons of God”. But in presuming that, this is what baptism is, this is also what baptism has always meant. Our present view glosses over the past because, when John baptized Jesus, it meant something different.
Baptizo is a Greek word which means “to plunge,” “to drown,” or “to sink”. During Palestine’s first-century, the baptism of Jesus by John was one of many water rituals which included the daily ritual bathing of monks at Qumran, Jewish ceremonial washing (John 2:6), and the hand-washing ritual of the Pharisees (Mark 7:3–5).
Josephus, who is a Jewish Historian in the first-century, notes that John the Baptist baptized people to show the ritual completion of their journey toward conversion. Rather than creating purity by forgiving sin, John’s baptisms honored the purity gotten when people turned away from sin in anticipation of the coming of the reign of God.
Maybe, this is why John baptized people in the River Jordan because Maxwell Johnson, in one of the Liturgical Press (The Rites of Christian Initiation), described how Israel first crossed the River of Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Because of that, John demands that the people enter into the Jordan again to anticipate the promised age.
In this case, the baptism of Jesus actually makes sense. Because, it is the moment where the heavens open, the Spirit descends, and the voice of the Father names the Son. It is the moment that comes before the temptation. In the same vein, the resurrection is the foundational moment that brings the disciples together (not just those on the road to Emmaus) to reexamine everything they thought they knew about Jesus and his ministry. They went further to understand how his baptism was more than a moment, it began his way of life and death. Because, when John baptized Jesus, it meant something much different than it does to Catholics today.
During the baptism of Jesus, as the heavens open, the Spirit descends, and children of God are named and temptation precedes. So as temptations emerge, causing us a crisis of faith immediately our baptism.
Are we content to rest on the relationship built by the moment of our baptism? Or are we willing to outlive that baptismal identity in our words, our actions, and in our death in the hope of resurrection?