The Baptism of Christ - by Verrocchio, Andrea del - from Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Father Walter Farrell and Father Mattin Healy
Based on the writings of "The Summa of Saint Thomas Aquinas"
The entrance of any great man into a position of power and authority is always marked by some important ceremony. This is true of the life of Christ. Before He began His public ministry for the salvation of men, He was baptized by John the Baptist. John the Baptist, a cousin of Christ, was the herald chosen by God to prepare men for the coming of Christ as their Savior. He had been sanctified by Christ Himself while he was still in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth. He had led a life of extreme asceticism and prayer. Then, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he began to preach to men repentance for sin as a preparation for the coming of the Savior. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he also baptized men with water. The Baptism of John did not give men the grace of the Holy Spirit as the Baptism of Christ does. But it prepared the way for the Sacrament of Baptism which Christ was to institute. John's preaching prepared men for faith in Christ. It accustomed men to the rite of Baptism which Christ would institute. And the penance which John preached prepared men to receive the effect of Christ's Baptism. Because John's Baptism did not give men the grace of God, those Baptized by John needed also the Baptism of Christ for salvation.
The Baptism of Christ by John marked the beginning of the public ministry of Christ. Although Christ was sinless and needed no purification at all, He received the Baptism of John. In the first place, since John's Baptism did not really forgive sin or give grace, it was not unfitting for Christ, Who possessed the fullness of grace, to receive this Baptism. In this way Christ showed His approval of John's Baptism, and, therefore, of the efforts of John to lead men to Himself. By receiving Baptism from John, Christ also sanctified Baptism.
The Baptism of Christ by John sanctified Baptism. This is made clear to us by the fact that when Christ was Baptized in the Jordan, the Heavens were opened, the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove and rested over the head of Christ, and the voice of God was heard saying, "This is My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). Through the sin of Adam the gates of Heaven were closed to all men. But at the Baptism of Christ the Heavens were opened. This signified that through the Sacrament of Baptism which Christ would institute, the gates of Heaven are reopened to man. In addition, the appearance of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and the voice of God the Father show us that the whole Trinity was present at the Baptism of Christ. Since Baptism sanctifies men in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, it was fitting that the Trinity should be manifested at the Baptism of Christ.
According to Saint Thomas, Christ was Baptized in His thirtieth year. This, Saint Thomas regards as the perfect time for His Baptism. At the age of thirty a man should be in the prime of his manhood. He should be fit for his life's work. Now Christ was about to begin to teach men the truths of God's revelation which they must believe to be saved. His Baptism then, at this age, signaled the beginning of the important work of His life. Besides, by beginning His public ministry, Christ was beginning the New Law of grace. It was fitting that He should have shown men that He was capable of keeping the Old Law. But by deferring the beginning of His public ministry to this age, He had given men the example of thirty years of conformity to the Old Law. No one could say that He abrogated the Old Law because He could not keep it Himself. We can also see a Divine symbolism in the Baptism of Christ at the age of His maturity. As Christ was Baptized at the perfect age of manhood, so Christian Baptism brings forth perfect men, men perfected by God's grace.
Christ came into the world to save men by His teaching, His example, His Passion and death on the Cross. The purpose of His life dictated the manner in which He lived. Because He had had to teach ignorant, sinful men the truths of God, He did not shun men. He did not lead a solitary life, disdaining the company of men because He was too perfect for them. Rather He went out into the world of men, seeking them in the towns and the villages, in the fields and on the roads, in the mountains and on the sea. How could He teach them, if He did not walk with them and talk with them? How could He lead them by His example, if He led a hidden life far from their eyes? Because He came to save sinners, He sought them out, like the good shepherd seeking his lost sheep. He became man so that men might find it easier to come to God. Hence, in His human nature, He made Himself accessible to all men, rich and poor, good and evil.
Nor did He repel men by an extreme austerity. It is true that Christ at times practiced abstinence in eating and drinking. He did this in order to give men good example. Because He was the perfect man, He had no need to discipline His appetites by fasting or abstinence. But He did so to show men that they can profit by mastering the tendencies of their sense appetite. On the other hand, for the most part, Christ ate and drank in the normal manner of men. Because He was always in perfect control of Himself, there was never anything excessive in His eating and drinking. But by acting as other men He made it possible for men to approach Him easily.
Only in the practice of poverty does Christ give the appearance of being different from most men. Most men either hate poverty and seek riches, or, if they are rich, they cling to their wealth. But Christ was voluntarily poor. He knew that the cares of wealth prevent men from being good preachers of the word of God. So He Himself gave an example to all the Apostles He would send to men in the course of time. He renounced worldly wealth, so that He might preach God's word unhindered by cares. He deliberately kept Himself poor in the things of this world, so that He might enrich men in the things of God. He knew, too, that men are only too inclined to think that God's ministers preach God's word for their own advantage. Hence, He gave up the wealth of the world so that His message to men might be recommended to them by His own unselfishness. Lastly, He lived a life of poverty in order to show men more clearly the power of His divinity. He would save mankind without any of the things which men hold necessary for success.