IF the Church teaches that “baptism…erases original sin and turns a man back toward God,” (Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 405) then—some would ask—why did Christ submit himself to St. John the Baptist in order to be baptized? (Luke 3:21) Did his baptism indicate that Jesus too was a sinner?
An answer can be gleaned from a homily given by Fr. Ted Murnane, SVD in a mass he celebrated at the University of San Carlos Talamban Campus.
Cebuanos, he claimed, have a peculiar custom of “baptizing” or bunyag. For example, when someone wears a brand-new, immaculately clean pair of shoes, he goes to church with it, then shows it later to his friends who will initiate or recognize the ownership of the new pair of shoes by stepping on it and smearing it a little while saying, “Pabunyaga ‘ta ana, bi!”(Allow me to “baptize” those shoes.) Something “extra special” takes place; then the shoes will be recognized as duly owned by the one wearing them.
Similarly, no one can say that Jesus needed baptism in order to wash away his sins. He, the Son of God and born of the Immaculate Mary—herself spared from original sin—was never subject to sin. He “was able to sympathize with all our weaknesses and although he was tempted in every way, (he was) without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
When Jesus went to John the Baptist, as all the others did, something “extra special” happened. Just as in Genesis, when the Spirit of the Lord hovered over the waters and from the chaos or nothingness came the wonder of creation which God saw was good, so also at the moment the Lord was baptized, the Spirit of the Lord hovered over the waters, and creation—once sadly marred by Adam—was renewed, then rightfully placed under Christ in whom the Father was well pleased. (Luke 3:22)
So, while all of us need baptism to erase original sin and turn us back to God, Jesus asked for and received baptism, not to have his sins forgiven, for He is without sin, but in order to repair and renew the marred creation. Jesus, as the beloved Son of the Father in whom He is well pleased, claims renewed creation as his own. He took this human nature of ours with its sinfulness in order to inaugurate a new era of forgiveness of sins where he, the sinless One, actually destroys the power of sin in our hearts.
“After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” Luke 3:21-22