In the Catholic Church, today is set aside as the “Commemoration of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” On this day, readings and sermons remind us of that important event in Jesus’ life.
He travels to the River Jordan, where his cousin, John the Baptist, has been doing the work of preparing the way for Christ’s coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
John calls on people to repent of their sins, and to change their lives. He preaches that the hour is growing late, warning people to “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is close at hand.” He then baptizes with ritual immersion in water as not just a sign that you are sorry, but as a whole change of life.
John has also been proclaiming that he himself is no one special, but that soon will come one greater than he, one who will baptize people not with water, but with fire and the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus about whom John speaks, and soon enough the day comes when his proclamations will turn to reality.
One day, while continuing his work of baptizing the usual array of sinners: ordinary folk, prostitutes, tax collectors, soldiers, and even clergy, suddenly Jesus appears in their midst, demanding to be baptized. John hesitates, saying that it is Jesus who should be baptizing him. But the Lord insists, and John proceeds with the ceremony.
At it’s conclusion, as Jesus raises from the water, the sky parts, God’s glory shines down upon the scene, and a dove descends, coming to rest on the Lord. God’s voice is heard by all: “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on him.”
Why did Jesus insist on his being baptized by John, when quite obviously as the Son of God, he could indeed have insisted just the opposite? His own words tell the story. In responding to John’s incredulity, Jesus said: “Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that uprightness demands.”
Jesus was telling John that it was important to demonstrate publicly that he himself was willing to not only tell people what to do, how they should live, how they should worship and respect God, but the he was also going to “walk the walk” and set an example. He would not ask anyone to do anything that he was not willing to do himself.
Jesus’ example at his baptism is one that we all need to take more seriously in our own lives. Whether in our roles as supervisors over other men and women in a work environment, as a political leader, as a public servant, or in that most important of roles, as a parent, we are to set the example.
The mantra of “do as I say, not as I do” must be forever set aside. It is not just enough that we know what is right, and demand that from others. We must also demand it of ourselves, and must first and constantly demonstrate that knowledge. We must all “walk the walk” as Jesus did in setting the example for us.
Following his baptism, Jesus went out into the desert and began the forty days and forty nights of fasting, reflection, and prayer that would prepare him for his public ministry. During that time he would be tempted by the devil, who would offer the Lord every earthly delight in return for his worship.
Again in the desert, hungry, thirsty, and hot, Jesus would set the example for us by turning away from the devil repeatedly. After numerous encounters, Jesus finally puts his foot down: “Away with you, Satan! For scripture says: ‘The Lord your God is the one to whom you must do homage, him alone you must serve.’”
Jesus example in demanding the he receive no special treatment, but be baptized as everyone must, and his example in repeatedly turning away from the earthly temptations of the devil are there for us to draw upon as inspiration. Through prayer, we have the power to follow his example, and to set our own example in today’s world.
The world is in desperate need today of such example setters. In each family, we are being called to set aside our old ways and to turn towards God. We are being called to stand up publicly, to live boldly proclaiming the example of Christ through our own words and our deeds. No matter your past, resolve to begin today to set that better example.