Perhaps he comes to sanctify his baptiser; certainly he comes to bury sinful humanity in the waters. He comes to sanctify the Jordan for our sake and in readiness for us; he who is spirit and flesh comes to begin a new creation through the Spirit and water.
— St. Gregory Nazianzen, Oratio 39
Emerging from the long silence of childhood and family life, the Lord arrives at the Jordan to be baptized by John. He makes no announcement, asks for no particular privilege. He submits himself for baptism and begins his public life and ministry.
“I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”\
John’s hesitation is understandable. He has spent his life preparing himself and others for the Lord’s arrival. John’s words and actions, laid out in his father’s prophecy, were so powerful that some thought he might be the long-awaited Messiah. No, he demurs. There is one coming whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.
John consents. The heavens open, the Spirit descends upon Jesus and the voice of the Father is heard from heaven: This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.
For one moment before John - while Jesus is praying, according to Luke: God the Father, speaking to the Son, by (through? with?) the Spirit. Later, the Lord will command his disciples to baptize in the name of all three.
Jesus’ every act is governed by the Father; hence the Spirit (through which the Lord was conceived and made man) is always with him, for it is the bond of love uniting Father and Son. Yet we read that the Holy Spirit “comes” over Jesus, just as one day, it will come over all whom Jesus calls his own. The intellect cannot cope with such paradoxes, though it somehow senses the reality beyond all reality, the truth beyond all truth. Precisely hear lies the danger. The mind must never allow itself to be misled into seeming ‘comprehension,’ into facile sensations or phrases with nothing solid beyond them. The whole problem is a mystery, the sacred mystery of the relationship of the triune God to his incarnate Son. We can never penetrate it, and knowledge of this incapacity must dominate our every thought and statement concerning Jesus’ life.
— Romano Guardini, The Lord
The baptism of Jesus sanctifies water, and so makes possible our own baptism. As his very human self entered the waters to sanctify them, so our following him into the waters joins us to him as adopted children and heirs. Prefigured in the passage of Israel through the Red Sea, the water of baptism delivers us from slavery to sin and into a new life, in a new land.
After this great manifestation - this realization of the divine promise (for that is what Epiphany means), Jesus will withdraw into the desert to fast and pray. As in baptism, we follow him, this time at a distance, ending the great feast of Christmas and entering briefly into Ordinary Time before withdrawing into Lent.
The Gospels record no encounters between John and Jesus prior to this one. The closest is a meeting of their mothers, when Mary visits Elizabeth, and the unborn John leaps for joy to hear her greeting from afar. This encounter begins to a close John’s life and mission as The Precursor, just as it stands at the threshold of the Lord’s public life.
The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man who stands and listens to him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease. (Jn 3:29-30)