One of the more enduring falsehoods to come out of the catechetical confusion that followed Vatican II is the idea that Jesus’ baptism represented an occasion of understanding or “discernment” about His mission, as though prior to this he was oblivious to His special relationship to God the Father. It reared its head recently in a homily delivered by — you guessed it — Ken Overberg, S.J., before the congregation at Bellarmine Chapel on the campus of Cincinnati’s Xavier University:
So why was this event remembered and handed on? Perhaps because of its significance for Jesus’ understanding of his life and vision for his ministry. Taking seriously that Jesus was fully human (as the Church teaches—and also fully divine) we recognize that Jesus had to discern his life’s path just like we all do. His encounter with John and the baptism must have marked a turning point in Jesus’ life, giving him a deepening sense of being God’s “beloved,” called to live and proclaim Abba God’s loving presence, the Reign of God. The specifics of all this would have to be worked out and confirmed in the doing. In all four gospels, the stories of Jesus and John the Baptist mark the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
The pertinent sections in the Catechism of the Catholic Church are paragraphs 535-537, and nowhere in them will you find support for Overberg’s speculation. Rather than describing His baptism in terms of understanding or discernment, the CCC holds that it as “the acceptance and inauguration of his mission as God’s suffering servant.” Immediately following this sentence, the Catechism tellingly refers to the “‘baptism’ of his bloody death” and that “he is submitting himself entirely to his Father’s will: out of love he consents to this baptism of death for the remission of our sins.” Perhaps all this sanguinary language in official Church teaching explains the notoriously Atone-o-phobic Overberg’s reluctance to give a straightforward explanation of Jesus’ baptism.