We are baptized for mission

Fr. Thomas Reese is a Jesuit priest, former editor of America magazine. and now a news columnist for Religion News Service. He is best known for his analysis of politics and public policy from a faith perspective and for his commentary on issues in the Catholic church.

Every once in awhile he writes a column that is much more spiritual and reflective. That’s the case for his latest column on the Religion News Service website. Under the headline “Baptism for mission, not only the remission of sins,” Reese reflects on the meaning of the Baptism of Jesus.

Reese begins:

Last Sunday (Jan. 12) most Christian churches celebrated the baptism of Jesus, an event in his life I always found confusing. I could never understand why Jesus was baptized. After all, Catholics believe that Jesus is the Son of God. He is sinless. He never committed any personal sins, and he was not even subject to original sin.

In Matthew’s Gospel (3:13-17), John the Baptist appears to be just as confused as I was. He does not want to baptize Jesus. He says Jesus should baptize him.

So why did Jesus get baptized?

I think the problem John and I had with the baptism of Jesus is that we had a very narrow and deficient view of baptism. When I grew up and memorized my Baltimore Catechism, baptism was described as the sacrament that washed away original sin, the sin we inherit from Adam and Eve. For adults, it also washed away all personal sins.

Likewise, for John, baptism was for the remission of sins.

There is nothing wrong with this description of baptism, as far as it goes, it just does not tell us enough.

Reese goes on to describe the scene at the river as “the heavens opened up” and the Spirit of God “descending like a dove.” This story in Matthew’s Gospel echoes stories from Isaiah, whom Reese calls “a favorite prophet of Jesus and the gospel writers.”

Reese continues:

At the baptism … the Father gives Jesus a special public mission. … It is a mission of justice and peace. “He shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting … A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench.” That does not sound like partisan politics in America today, where there is a lot of shouting.

It is a this point that Reese — like any good homilist — turns this Scripture reflection into a pointed commentary relevant for our day and daily activities. He writes, “The baptism of Jesus also tells us about our own baptism. … Baptism does not just wash away sin; baptism is not just for our personal salvation.”

Then comes the poke to our conscience and complacency:

Baptism commissions us with the Spirit to the same mission that Jesus had. … The question for Christians is how we continue the mission of Jesus. Any time we are a healing and peaceful presence in our families, our neighborhood, our workplace and politics, we are fulfilling the mission of Jesus. Any time we oppose racism, sexism and homophobia, we are fulfilling the mission of our baptisms.

We continue the mission of Jesus when we work to stop global warming and work for peace in the Middle East, create good jobs for the poor and provide healthcare to the sick, teach children and free those unjustly imprisoned, speak out for justice and protect human rights, witness and profess God’s love to the world.

We are not simply baptized for our personal salvation; we are baptized into the Christian community for service to the world.

This isn’t the end of Reese’s column. You can read the rest here.

The photo above is “The Baptism of Christ” by Joachim Patinir, circa 1510. Image courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum/Creative Commons.