Maybe the oldest testimony to the baptism of Jesus is that of Peter, which we have heard in the second reading. Speaking in the house of Cornelius, Peter said: “You know … what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached, how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power (unxit eum Deus Spiritu Sancto et virtute).” This is the point of the event we celebrate today: more than the baptism in itself—Jesus did not need to be baptized—his anointing with the Holy Spirit and power. Jesus is consecrated by God as the Messiah, thus starting his public ministry.
The anointing is signified by the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and coming upon Jesus. It is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah we have heard in the first reading: “Upon [him] I have put my spirit.” In the Old Testament, kings and priests were anointed with oil to perform their respective roles.
That Jesus is the Messiah is expressed by the voice coming from the heavens: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” In these words we find an echo of two texts of Scripture. The first one is Psalm 2, the messianic psalm par excellence; it portrays the installation of the king in Zion; to him God says: “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (Ps 2:7 RSV). The king of Israel was considered the earthly representative of God, as if he were his adopted son. In this case, it is not just an adoption, but the revelation of the eternal divine sonship of Jesus.
At the same time, in the words of the Father we find a reference to the first oracle of the servant of the Lord, which we have heard in the first reading: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased.” Never had the Jews given a messianic interpretation to the four oracles of the servant; they rather referred those prophecies to themselves as a people. Now these two figures, the Messiah and the Servant of the Lord, are identified in the person of Jesus Christ: Jesus is the Messiah; but his messiahship has to be interpreted in the light of the oracles of the suffering Servant of the Lord.
It is interesting to notice that Jesus receives this heavenly testimony about his messiahship and divinity at the very moment when he mingles with the crowd of sinners. Jesus goes to John to be baptized as any other sinner. Matthew is the only evangelist to report John’s reaction to Jesus’ request. Maybe John did not know yet that Jesus was the Son of God; but he was certainly aware of his superiority. He said in his preaching: “I am baptizing you with water … but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:11). That is why he says to Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” There follows the mysterious answer of Jesus: “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” What did Jesus mean? It is as if he said: “We have—you and me—to submit ourselves to the plan of God for the salvation of humankind; we have to fulfill the will of God, who wants all men to be saved.” This plan involves the identification of Jesus with sinners: he, who is without sin, behaves as if he were a sinner, to save sinners. He has himself baptized not because he needs to be cleansed of any sin, but to cleanse us from our sins. When he enters the Jordan’s waters, he carries the whole humanity with himself. It is not the waters of the Jordan to sanctify him, but it is he to sanctify them, so that, through the sacrament of Baptism, they may sanctify us.
What we have said about Jesus goes all the more so for each of us. If Jesus, who was sinless, was proclaimed Son of God when he mingled with sinners, even more we, who are sinners, have to acknowledge our sins, if we want to be recognized as children of God.