According to St John's Gospel, John the Baptist performed his baptisms at a place called Bethany-beyond-Jordan, at the northern end of the Dead Sea.
Each year about 3 billion gallons of water enters the Dead Sea from the river Jordan, having travelled downhill from the sea of Galilee which is 600 feet higher. This descent probably accounts for the name Jordan which comes from the Hebrew word meaning 'to go down'. Perhaps this is what inspired John the Baptist to baptize by total immersion, the method implied in Mark's Gospel.
John had made people aware of their need for a complete change of heart. God was calling them back to an authentic way of life in keeping with the covenant. John had every confidence in God's forgiveness and he taught that the right response to a loving, merciful God was to show compassion to others, by sharing with those in need and avoiding exploitation. Baptism in the Jordan, through which the children of Israel had passed into the promised land, would be the sign of this radical conversion to God.
The baptisms that John performed in this obscure place were a clear departure from Old Testament purification rites. John was conscious that he was doing something new; but even as he performed these baptisms 'of repentance for the forgiveness of sins', he was already aware of something greater to come. In today's Gospel he tells the people 'I baptize you with water but someone is coming who is more powerful than I am... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire'.
When Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptized, John immediately recognized him as the one whose coming he had proclaimed because St Matthew tells us that John was reluctant to baptize Jesus. Surely it was he, John, who needed to be baptized by Jesus?
John was quite right that it was he who needed to be baptized by Christ. Jesus did not need baptism. The Sinless One had no need of forgiveness. Why then did Jesus choose to be baptized by John?
One answer we might give lies in the revelation of divine humility. The Son of God not only washed the feet of sinners, he allowed himself to be numbered with them. It is significant that here, at the beginning of Christ's ministry, the revelation of his divine sonship is also the revelation of the Father and the Holy Spirit. There is a gentle approval in the tender words of the Father and the presence of the Spirit in the form of a graceful dove, as the Son of God submits to baptism with a loving humility. The Christmas season began with the Incarnation which shows God's love for our humanity. It ends with the feast of Christ's baptism in which Christ publicly identifies with sinners to the approval of Father and Spirit. He will keep company with sinners to the very end of his life on the cross.
The meaning of Christ's baptism does not end there because by descending into the waters and re-emerging, Christ symbolically anticipates his coming death and resurrection. And by doing so he sanctifies the waters of baptism providing us with the means to be cleansed of sin and united with him.
That is why Christ instituted the sacrament of baptism and sent out his disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
John's improvised ritual had a natural and beautiful simplicity. And it is this ritual that Jesus made his own, giving it the power to raise us up to new life.
We know from St Paul's letters that Jesus's followers practised baptism as the Lord had directed and that they grasped the connection with his death and resurrection.
So today we remind ourselves that from the moment of our own baptism we are united with Christ, that the Holy Spirit dwells in us and that the Father's favour rests on us too. In the words of St Gregory of Nazianzus, 'let us be buried with Christ by Baptism to rise with Him; let us go down with Him to be raised with Him; and let us rise with Him to be glorified with Him.'