At His baptism, Jesus tells St. John that He needsto be baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.” TheGospel account gives no further explanation ofwhat Jesus meant by these words and they can bequite puzzling. The baptism of John was abaptism of repentance. Why would someone whois sinless need repentance? How doesrighteousness fit in the picture?
A few years ago, at a parish retreat, a priest talkedabout the ideas of morality and righteousness. Heargued that morality is a term that society co-optsfor whatever is currently in vogue, whilerighteousness remains constant in referring tothe things which conform to the will of God.While I am not quite ready to concede the wordsmoral and morality to a mere secular use, the ideathat righteousness is connected to the will of Godhas deep roots within the Church. The holy menand women of the Old Testament – Abraham, Job,Sarah, and Deborah, for example - are given thetitle “righteous” in their commemoration. Theytrusted God and followed His will, even when thatwill seemed unreasonable – perhaps mostfamously in the case of Abraham’s call to sacrificehis son, Isaac.
In Abraham’s case, God provided a ram to takeIsaac’s place, but that event has been understoodas a foreshadowing of the crucifixion from thevery earliest times of the Church and it providesus with a way to understand what is happening atChrist’s baptism. We have arrived at thefulfillment of what was glimpsed with Abrahamand Isaac: a son was indeed to be sacrificed bydivine will. The ultimate fulfillment of righteousness is the Cross. It is there that wesee Jesus fulfilling the Father’s plan for thesalvation of humanity.
However, before getting to the Cross, severalthings needed to happen. One of the mostimportant is Christ taking upon Himself thesins of humanity. It is precisely at Theophanythat we see Him as the “lamb of God who takesaway the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29). This is themeaning of His baptism: He who is sinlessreceives a baptism of repentance because, inHis love for humanity, the Son of God freelyaccepts the burden of our sins.
We now need to return to the idea ofrighteousness. This action of Christ’s isfulfilling God’s righteousness. It is clear that wecannot conceive of Christ’s baptism in terms ofaction and reward. There is no transactionalquality here, because there is nothing thathumanity can offer to pay God back. There isalso no sense of juridical justice. The idea ofrighteousness, as it relates to God, cannot beseparated from that of self-sacrificial love. Asdisciples of Christ, this means thatrighteousness – as lived in our lives – can alsonot be separated from self-sacrificial love.
Thus, on one hand, life as Christians meansthat we cannot be dispassionate observers ofthe world around us. In his book,The Ethics ofBeauty,Dr. Timothy Patitsas argues that youcannot know something that you do not loveand you cannot make better something that youdo not know. This understanding of knowledgehas a Biblical basis. For us to know the worldand be a presence of God in it, we need to beable to love sacrificially, as God does. On theother hand, we are also keenly aware that weare not God. We are not the saviors of theworld, but we are sowers, workers, reapers. Ourcall is often not to know the entire picture, but to live faithfully, sacrificially in the corner of theworld that we do know and do our best to love.
I pray that in the new year God give us the grace tolive sacrificially and the strength to help bear oneanother’s burdens.
With love in Christ