We imagine today's Gospel scene something like this. John has been so busy dunking people, he hasn’t noticed the next person in line. Quietly Jesus steps forward to be baptized, his head lowered. Jesus smiles shyly. John stops, looks around, then comes close to Jesus and whispers, “Ah, what are you doing here? Please don’t do this. Get out of here. I’m not doing it; I’m not baptizing you. If anything, you should be baptizing me.”
Why is Jesus here of all places? He has nothing to repent of? Why would he choose to do this? Perhaps it is that he couldn’t not do it. That’s what he’s telling John. And so his response is tender and insistent, “Please allow it now, for in this way we will fulfill all righteousness.” Simply put, he who is Love could do no less.
Jesus has so identified himself with his people, his own- those he has prayed with and played with and worked and eaten with- that he wants to be with them, to do with them this awesome covenantal moment. He has to be there, there in the water with them, with us. For he is reconciling the world to himself, not counting our transgressions against us, "since for our sakes, God has made him who did not know sin, to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God.” Romans 5
Jesus is with us in all that embarrasses and burdens us, our regrets and our failures, our sins. Only the passion of his love can explain his desire for baptism, his desire to take our flesh in the first place- no distance, no separateness but immersion and identification with us. He has come to share absolutely in our distress now in the water, and very soon on the cross. He wants to be with us. Love in Person has irreversibly plunged into the dark water of our humanness, into ordinariness. Jesus goes down into the cool waters of conversion to mark God’s irrevocable communion with us. Christ Jesus enfleshes both our sinful fragility and our restoration as he stands dripping wet in the Jordan. And thus he restores to us the realization of our belovedness in him.
The Baptism of Christ Piero della Francesca, c. 1448-1450, Tempera on panel, 66 x 46", National Gallery, London.