The church celebrates the Baptism of the Lord on January 9th, the Sunday after Epiphany. While the Gospels tell the story in only a few sentences, it is one of the most important aspects of Jesus’ life, since the baptism of Jesus is the archetype for every baptism that follows his.
Sometimes we miss the rich meaning in the rites of the church. We speak our assigned parts and do the assigned actions, sometimes without knowing the symbolism behind each act. When you understand the Biblical stories behind the sacraments and the images we use, you will see the beautiful liturgical tradition the church has given us.
The Baptism of the Lord
The story is simple. Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist. John, knowing that Jesus was the Son of God, tried to stop Jesus by saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14) But Jesus responds, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). When John baptizes Jesus, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. The Father speaks to Jesus, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners, our baptisms are like Jesus’ baptism. We receive the Holy Spirit who gives us the power to live as faithful Christians. We are adopted as sons of God through the Son of God, which means we can pray the prayer of the church which begins, “Our Father.”
Symbols in the Sacrament of Baptism
The historical details of Jesus’ baptism play a role in our own rite of baptism. The first symbol a priest uses is in the reception of the child when the priest makes the sign of the cross on the child’s forehead. The sign of the cross reminds us that baptism would just be water without the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Other symbols focus on more concrete parts of the story. Jesus’ baptism begins when he enters the water. You can see images of water in most baptismal artwork. Sometimes the artist depicts the water as a flowing river, evoking the water of life that springs up inside us when we are baptized.
Other times, you will see three drops of water suspended below the bottom of the shell, representing the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all of whom were present at the baptism of Jesus. They also recall Jesus’ own command regarding baptism, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
In the rite of baptism, the church confesses the Apostles Creed. The priest asks the parents and Godparents whether they believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. After each of the three questions, they recite together the relevant passage from the creed.
After Jesus had been baptized, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove. While the Bible does not tell us whether the Spirit was visibly in the form of a dove or not, the image of a dove is a symbol that represents the Holy Spirit. When artists use the symbol of the dove, they depict it diving down to earth from heaven. In baptism, the Holy Spirit does not float around aimlessly. Rather, he dives from heaven to us just like he did when Jesus was baptized. A downward facing dove reminds us that the Spirit comes down to us.
Sometimes, fire, a common symbol for the Holy Spirit, accompanies the dove. In the gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist preaches to the crowds, and he predicts that Jesus would come to baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. On the day of Pentecost, in Acts chapter 2, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire float above their heads. Fire reminds us of the power of the Holy Spirit that rests inside every Christian.
In the rite of baptism, fire also symbolizes the light of Christ entering into the child. The priest lights the child’s baptismal candle from the flame of Jesus Christ’s Easter candle. It shows both our connection to Christ through the one flame passed from him to us, as well as the scattering of the darkness of sin with that light.
Baptism may be the most recognizable sacrament in the Catholic Church. For infants, it is the beginning of their life as members of the church. For adults, it comes as part of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Either way, baptism is the first step in the sacramental life of the Catholic Church. It enlightens the eyes of the heart and gives a washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.