John the Baptist preached the coming judgment and called for repentance. He offered people a sign of repentance in the baptism he gave for the forgiveness of sins. And so, when it comes to the baptism of Jesus, perhaps we share some of John’s reticence. Why should Jesus Christ, like us in all things but sin, need to be baptized? What need for repentance did he have?
It is us who need repentance and healing, not the Lord. In his baptism he is baptized not because he needs forgiveness, but because we do. He is entering into our spiritual condition, joining himself to us sinners. That’s why we celebrate the baptism of the Lord as the conclusion of the Christmas season. In his birth the Son enters into our vulnerability and contingent existence. Now in his baptism he joins himself to our hurt and mixed-up spiritual condition. This process of God meeting us in our vulnerability and suffering will culminate on the Cross, when Jesus feels the deep, searing suffering of being totally alienated from God: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
The Lord meets us in the suffering we bring upon ourselves and our world with our sins. That’s the message of having himself baptized for repentance. It’s not Jesus who is a sinner, but me. And that’s where the humanity of Christ meets my humanity in this baptism.
You know, sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking we aren’t good enough for God, that God couldn’t want us because we are so messed up and attached to our sins. But the message of today is that the truth is the opposite. It is precisely in our condition as sinners in need of healing and repentance that God comes to meet us. It is exactly in that state of noticing how depressed and miserable we make ourselves with our sins, that God comes to us in Jesus Christ.
Think of what we say right before receiving Holy Communion. Echoing the centurion from Matthew’s gospel we say, “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.” That’s where God meets us. And this healing word that we beg for before accepting Communion has been spoken! It is the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. He is the Word God speaks to the world, and this Word is God saying, ‘I am coming to meet where you are, in your vulnerability, in your depression, in your anxiety. And by coming down and joining my divine Life to your humanity, I will heal you of your sins and your hurt.”
That is the Word of humble and generous God of Christmas. This is the God who is baptized, entering into our need for repentance, that he himself might lift us up and heal us with the Light and Love of his divine presence.