We are at a point along the lowest level of the earth’s surface, at that solemn moment in time when God’s own Son is about to begin his ministry of salvation.
Along the farther bank, a small group of people are observing the men in the river. Jesus crouches down into the water, head bowed, as John the Baptist pours a shell full of water upon our Lord’s head. John’s face radiates loving admiration, while that of Jesus is one of utter humility.
This, of course, was not the sacrament of baptism. It was a simple ritual washing for repentant sinners who were invited to be symbolically cleansed of their moral defilements.
John’s “baptism” was one of many previous such ritual washings which, in fact, go on to this day in the River Ganges.
We believe that God’s Son, though born of a woman, was sinless. Why, then, did He submit to what must seem an indignity upon His holiness?
He entered the water and submitted to this “baptism,” not to be cleansed (of sin), but, symbolically, to be defiled by it. It was a prophetic action familiar to the non-verbal preaching of the great prophets of Israel.
Jesus was claiming (as far as it was possible to do so) His solidarity with our sinful race, since He was already, through Mary and by the power of the Holy Spirit, one with us in our humanity.
This was as close as Jesus would come to sin—not to be invaded by it, but to share its unhappy consequences in the pain and death He would endure for us.
From Meditations on Some Art I Have Loved
By Fr. Hilary Sweeney, C.P.