The effect of the sacrament of Baptism is twofold - cleansing from original sin, that bias towards self which has tainted human nature since its original Fall, and the opening up to the life of grace, through which the Holy Spirit indwells the soul, and speaks to the heart in a language deeper than words. All this is achieved through the agency of water, that most basic of all the elements which make up the created order. We cannot reflect on the BAPTISM of JESUS without drawing parallels with our own initiation at the font - but there is a fundamental difference between what Jesus accepted at the hands of John, and the baptism which is crucial to the salvation of the rest of the human race.
The Baptist’s ministry was a call to repentance: “get ready, changeyour lifestyle, the Messiah is very close”. As a sign of that necessary conversion, John baptised with water, the washing away of past sin. But Jesus did not need this baptism - he had no sin to be washed away - he was the Message itself, not the medium. So why does Jesus come to the River Jordan? St Matthew has John say: “It is I who need baptism from you, and yet you come to me”, and Jesus responding somewhat ambiguously: "Leave it like this for the timebeing. It is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands”.
Over and over again we need to remind ourselves that the Incarnation is God’s act of total self-abasement. “It is fitting”. He lays his glory aside and, in a Trinitarian action, the Son - through the activity of the Spirit - assumes a humanity which is then offered to the Father in an obedience of love which re-connects the creation to its Creator. That this is the acceptable offering is evidenced by the Father’s intervention as Jesus prays after his Baptism - the heavens open, the Spirit is seen to descend, and the moment is interpreted by the Father’s voice: “You are my Son, theBeloved, my favour rests on you”.
So why is Jesus baptised? St Cyril of Alexandria writing in the 5th century takes up a theme which is common to many of the early Christian writers in seeing that Christ goes into the water not for his own needs but for ours. “The Only-begotten receives the Holy Spirit not for himself (for the Spirit is his, and is given in him, and through him) but because he was made man he had the whole nature in himself, that he might renew and restore its integrity”. Christ, the Second Adam, comes to reverse all that had led to alienation between God and those he has made in his own image and likeness. In his Baptism, Jesus begins that work of re-constitution which means that you and I are capable of communion with the living Father. Made by God, made for God, our individual calling is to holiness of life, to that righteousness which is described by St Paul in his Letter to Titus: "He did this so that we should be justifiedby his grace, to become heirs looking forward to inheriting eternal life”.
The challenge, of course, is whether we do really want to lead a Christian life and to allow the Spirit to sanctify us. I suspect that for you, as for me, when we come face to face with God our many sins and failures will not so much be those of commission, but of omission. In the final judgement, we are called to be saints: that is our shared vocation. But is that what we really want? Is that the goal of our lives, “the pearl without price”? In our heart of hearts is that what we are truly striving towards? And if not, why not?