Column: John’s account of baptism focuses on Spirit

by Father Mike Stubbs

In recent years, some Catholics have engaged in a dispute about baptism. Current church documents encourage baptism by immersion, while many Catholics are familiar with baptism by infusion, the pouring of water. We should note that the dispute revolves around the manner of the ceremony, not its fundamental meaning.

It is useful to realize that another controversy concerning baptism arose in the early days of Christianity. While arguments in favor of infusion operate mainly on the level of nostalgia and are devoid of any theological content, this ancient controversy dealt with the sacrament’s basic meaning. It dealt with the relationship of Jesus Christ to baptism.

We should remember that the practice of baptism began before Jesus. John the Baptist started to baptize in the Jordan River as a sign of repentance from sin. A movement grew up around John that apparently persisted even after his death. At any rate, John’s baptism continued on, possibly performed by his followers (Acts 19:3). This raised the question: Did baptism primarily signify repentance, or did it take on new meaning through Jesus Christ?

This issue was complicated by the fact that Jesus himself had been baptized by John. Some looked upon this as a potential embarrassment. Did this imply that Jesus was subordinate to John, since John had baptized him?

Did this imply that Jesus had sinned?

The Gospels answer these questions by emphasizing John’s role as the forerunner of Christ.

As John announces in Mt 3:11, which we heard on the Second Sunday of Advent: “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me (Jesus) is mightier than I.”

This Sunday’s Gospel, Jn 1:29-34, deals with the baptism of Jesus in a roundabout way. It does not include a description of the event. If we had to rely upon John’s Gospel, we would not know whether Jesus was ever baptized.

This omission fits in with the general approach of John’s Gospel. Frequently, this Gospel will leave out a crucial event of Jesus’ life. For example, Matthew, Mark and Luke all recount the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, but John does not mention it.

Some have suggested that John looked upon his Gospel as a supplement to the other three Gospels and did not bother to duplicate materials found there. That could explain why John does not provide any description of Jesus’ baptism. Another possible explanation suggests a desire on John’s part to avoid direct mention of a subject which could raise difficult questions. Perhaps both explanations are valid.

While John’s Gospel does not describe Jesus’ baptism, it does mention an incident linked to Jesus’ baptism. Matthew, Mark and Luke all report that the Holy Spirit descended like a dove on Jesus immediately after his baptism. In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist also testifies to this: “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him.”

John’s Gospel effectively describes Jesus as being baptized by the Spirit, rather than with water. It focuses attention upon the bestowal of the Spirit, rather than any ceremony of water. Instead of the person who performs the ceremony, John the Baptist is transformed into a witness who testifies to Jesus’ reception of the Spirit.

John also announces that Jesus “is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” The baptism of Jesus — that is to say, the baptism of Jesus’ followers — will emphasize the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, rather than repentance from sin, as in John’s baptism. This is the new meaning that Jesus brings to baptism.

Father Stubbs is the pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Lansing.

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