January 1 is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. It was originally called the Feast of the Circumcision, falling eight days after Christmas. January 13 is the Commemoration of the Baptism of Our Lord. Both days got me thinking about these rituals. Christ is God, so did he really need to be circumcised or baptized? And if not, then why did He?
Jewish boys are traditionally circumcised eight days after birth. During this ceremony, the child is also given his name. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant with God, as commanded to Abraham. Mary and Joseph were good Jews, so of course they would get their child circumcised. It showed the family’s obedience to the Law, for as Jesus would say later, “I have come not to abolish [the Law] but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). The Circumcision of Christ is traditionally seen as the first time Jesus’ blood was shed— a sign of His humanity and the beginning of His earthly work of redemption that would culminate on the cross.
One of the earliest disagreements the Church had to deal with was including Gentiles in the faith, and if Gentiles were included, would they have to be circumcised. It was determined that no, they didn’t, because while Jewish circumcision marked the child as part of God’s covenant, Christianity had its own signs of the covenant. Christian infants began receiving their name at baptism. Baptism now served as the marker of God’s new covenant.
John the Baptist began baptizing people in water for remission of sins as part of his mission preaching the kingdom of heaven. John first asks Jesus to baptize him, but Jesus has John baptize him instead, saying “Allow it now, for it is fitting for us to fulfill righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). The heavens open, the Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and a voice says, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). From here, Jesus goes into the desert and then begins his ministry. It’s clearly a turning point, but didn’t John have a point? Shouldn’t Jesus have been doing the baptizing instead of the other way around? He had no Original Sin to remove nor sins to repent.
Pope Benedict XVI said that Jesus’ baptism was an expression of the cross, where Jesus was taking on the stain of others that Jesus bore mankind’s guilt and removed it through baptism in the Jordan. This was His first step as the Messiah who suffers for his people. I read on interesting Orthodox take on Jesus’ baptism; the story has less to do with the ritual John was performing and more with the river itself. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, the same river the Israelites had to cross to reach the promised land. Joshua led the people across the river into the promised land. Jesus (keep in mind that Joshua and Jesus are the same in Hebrew, meaning “God saves”), in his baptism, became the new Joshua, leading people through death to the kingdom of God. He gave baptism its power. It was so powerful that the heavens opened, then and forever.