REFLECTION: Understanding the Baptism of the Lord
The Feast of the "Baptism of the Lord" is not only an ancient Feast which ends the Christmas Season, it has a profound theological meaning for all Christians. It is, the Great Theophany, the manifestation of God, and has implications for our lives and our mission.
For when the Savior is washed, then already for our baptism all water is cleansed and the fount purified, that the grace of the laver may be administered to the peoples that come after. Christ therefore takes the lead in baptism, so that Christian peoples may follow after him with confidence.
I understand the mystery: for the column of fire went first through the Red Sea, that the children of Israel might tread the hazardous journey without fear; and it, itself, went first through the waters, so that for those coming after it, it might prepare a way to pass. Which event, as the Apostle says, was a symbol of baptism. Clearly baptism in some sort of way has been carried out when the cloud overshadowed the men, and the wave bore them.
But the one who performed all these things was still the same Lord Christ, who as he then went before the children of Israel in a pillar of fire, now by baptism goes before Christian peoples in the pillar of his body. This is the very pillar I maintain which then supplied light to the eyes of those who followed, and who now furnishes light to the hearts of believers; who then in the waves of the sea made firm the pathway, and now in the laver strengthens the footprints of faith.”
A Sermon by St. Maximus of Turin (423 AD)
This past Sunday, in the Western Catholic Church, we “ended” the Christmas season with the great feast of the Lord’s “Baptism in the Jordan”. Decorations in our Churches (and in many of our homes) came down-unless that occurred last week, which was the Western Feast of the “Epiphany”.
The origins of the differing timelines of the commemoration of these Feasts in the East and the West; and the theological distinctive they reveal; are rich, important and supremely interesting.
Yet, while theologians continue to grapple with these matters, in the Third Christian Millennium, the plan of God is still being revealed by Epiphanies. His “manifestation” continues to unfold and we are invited to be a part of that great mission.
It is to that ongoing plan of redemption that I now turn as I share my reflections on the meaning of this Feast.
I was struck Sunday morning at Mass (the “Divine Liturgy” as it is called in the East) with the meaning of this important feast. This event of the Baptism of Jesus by John marks the beginning of His “public” ministry. He was thirty years old. He died His redemptive death at Golgotha when He was thirty three.
He spent thirty redemptive years of life in what writers have sometimes referred to as “His hidden years” in Nazareth’s school, “growing in wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52) During those years, in the hearth of a human family, the Son of God, fully Divine and fully human, sanctified and transformed the entirety of the human experience.
The fathers of the Church referred to the Christian faith, and the sacraments of the church, as “the mysteries”. They are. They are inexhaustible in their depth of meaning, like a rich feast that never ends and a deep ocean of wonder into which we are invited to wade. We can never touch the bottom.
The God, who made the whole universe and created man out of the dust of the earth, took on our humanity. He lived in the first home of every human, His self- chosen mothers womb. By first occupying a womb, those first nine months of His life have made every human pregnancy even more profound. God was in the womb! Because of this extraordinary fact, every human pregnancy, every womb, was forever elevated beyond the dignity it already possessed.
Also, the extreme evil of abortion is made even more profane.
Soon and sadly, we in America will “commemorate” the horror of legalized abortion when one more “anniversary” of the infamous judicial decision of the case “Roe v. Wade” is remembered. Roe v. Wade gave legal protection to the killing of children in the womb. In America, it has been the law of the land for almost forty years. What horrors it has unleashed. How desperately we need to be saved from the “culture of death” that it represents.
This Redeemer in the womb, Jesus, began His saving work “in utero”. So powerful was His “hidden” presence in that womb that the one to whom He would come for Baptism, John, was himself “baptized” in the womb of his mother Elizabeth by the mere encounter between the pregnant Mary and Elizabeth.
That encounter, traditionally called “the visitation” is recorded in the sacred text of the New Testament. The story of this encounter between two children in the womb, the “forerunner” and his Savior, both hidden in their first home, is recorded in the first chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
But Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" And the angel said to her in reply, "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God."
Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her. During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."
And Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. “
This child of Mary's was born and heaven touched earth.
He was raised by a human mother and father; and parenting and family life forever took on a deeper meaning. At the bench of Joseph the carpenter; he learned the carpenter’s trade and sanctified all human work as a participation in the continuing work of both creation and redemption.
Both activities continue in and through the work of His Church in the world. The Church is the Body of His Son still active, still mediating the fruits of His redemption as she journeys through time on the way to eternity.
At the breast of his mother, He elevated the already holy wonder and dignity of motherhood. He allowed Himself in His sacred humanity to be nurtured as a sign of the beauty of the entire human experience of growth and maturation. He now symbolically entrusts that nurturing work to that Church which has, from antiquity, rightly been called a “mother” for the whole human race.
The word “Epiphany” means “manifestation”, it is a making present, a revealing. There is no doubt that even during those “hidden” years the plan, purpose and redemptive implications of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were manifested. They were an “Epiphany” of how the ordinary becomes “extraordinary” when lived in grace.
Last week, in the Western Church, we remembered the “Manifestation” to the Gentiles, the Feast of the Epiphany. We reflected on the “wise men” from the East who followed the light to the fullness of Divinity who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.
Yet, from antiquity, the Christian church has pointed to this “Manifestation” in the river of Jordan, this “Epiphany” in the waters, as the event wherein the full plan of God for His Church and the entirety of creation itself is made manifest.
The beloved disciple John wrote in His first letter:
“See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
“Beloved, we are God's children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.” (1 John 3:1-3)
We shall be like Him for we shall “see” Him as He is. We shall be “like Him” when we learn to live in Him and allow Him to live within us. This begins at our own Baptism when He initiates the relationship.
Even now, we are invited to see Him as He is and to become “like Him”. We are called to become a “manifestation”, an “epiphany” of God in a world stumbling along in the darkness of sin. We do that, more or less effectively, in direct relationship to our becoming more like the One who is Himself the “Light of the world.” In other words, we are invited to renounce sin and embrace a life of sanctity.
This process of being made “pure”, of being made “holy” (which literally means being “set aside”) is at the foundation of this great feast; if we seek to understand it in its fullness, its “mystery”.
The Baptism of Jesus, the great “Theophany”, speaks to the very meaning and mystery of the vocation of the Church and of every Christian. We are called to be immersed in God and to bring the world along.
The great spiritual writers tell us that through our baptism we are “incorporated” into Christ and enter into His “Mystical Body” which is the Church. This Church is not simply a human “congregation” but rather a “Communion”. We begin in the here and now to live our lives, immersed in God.
The Apostle Peter writes in his second letter to the dispersed early Christians that we become “partakers of the divine nature”. Eastern Christianity and its theologicallanguage speaks of this process as “theosis”.
Wow! That is deep stuff!
The word “Epiphany” (meaning "manifestation") is not often used in Eastern Christianity. Instead it is replaced by the word “Theophany”, which in Greek literally means not only a “manifestation” but the "manifestation of God."
The Theophany, the Baptism of Jesus at the Jordan, manifests the very life of the Holy Trinity to the whole world. In so doing it invites the whole world into a “communion”, a participation in that life of the Trinity through Baptism into Jesus Christ!
This years' Gospel passage for the liturgical cycle in the Western Church was taken from the Gospel of St. Matthew:
“Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “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.”
Then he allowed him.After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” St. Matthew 3:13-17
The scene reveals this deeper meaning of the “Mystery” that is the “Theophany” or the "Baptism of our Lord" and why it truly is the “Epiphany of Epiphanies”. In this extraordinary biblical account we find the very Trinity revealed. The heavens open, the voice of the Father speaks to the Son and the Spirit descends!
The waters of the Jordan are sanctified by the Son.
From antiquity, the Church has found a deeper meaning in that great event. Symbolically, all water is sanctified. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of the original creation, the Spirit now hovers over these waters wherein the Son, through whom the entire universe was made, is immersed. This is the reason why, in the East, when this feast is celebrated, waters are blessed. In fact, in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, the clergy often lead the faithful to rivers and entire rivers are blessed!
One of the first elements of creation (Genesis 1:9/ St. John 1:1-5)) created by the Father through the Son, is now re-created through the Incarnate presence of the Son. God now stands in the waters of the earth He created. Into these waters, through which the people of Israel were once delivered, the entire human race is now invited to follow Jesus in every Baptismal Font, in every Church, for all eternity.
Now, all water is sanctified and what was once the means of God’s judgment and purification at the time of Noah, is now the fountain where men and women are delivered from sin and made new! There, as on this great day, the heavens will open, and a dove will appear, as a sign of the beginning of the new creation beginning in each of their lives.The waters of the whole earth have forever been sanctified and the Church is now given new waters for her saving and sanctifying mission.
In the waters of the Jordan, the Trinity, the Communion of Divine persons, in perfect unity, is revealed.
In the great liturgical prayer of the East the Church proclaims: “When Thou, O Lord was baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest... O Christ our God who has appeared and enlightened the world, Glory to Thee."
To this day and up until the consummation of all things, the Church of Christ baptizes in the “Name” - the identity- of that Trinity.
Today’s commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River by the Prophet and Forerunner John is a manifestation of a deeper “mystery” that informs the heart of the Christian faith. We need to stop and wonder, in order to understand and be changed by it.
That is, after all what the Greek word “Metanoia” (translated “conversion”) truly means. These feasts are given for us. They are a “feast” in every meaning of the word. More than just a commemoration, they are meant to change us.
In his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus is not sanctified for He is without sin, the Holy One who makes us holy as we choose to enter into communion with God through Him. We become “sons (and daughters) in the Son". He descends into the waters of the Jordan River and sanctifies the waters of the whole earth.
He begins the new creation.
The Theophany speaks to the great teaching of the Christian faith that all of creation will be redeemed! In fact as Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome, creation itself “groans” for that full redemption (Romans 8:28). This belief in the full redemption of creation, of a new heaven and a new earth, is integral to the Christian faith.
Christians are NOT anti-matter. We profess in our ancient creed that we will await the resurrection of our bodies and life in a “world to come.” We should live as though we believe that we will spend eternity in resurrected bodies in a new heaven and a new earth. We need a “redemptive” approach to the material world.
The last Book of the Bible, the Revelation or “Apocalypse” of St. John ends with the beloved Disciple revealing his vision, given to him at Mt Patmos, of “a new heaven and a new earth” coming down from heaven, sent by God (Revelations 21).
The Feast of the “Theophany”, the Baptism in the Jordan celebrates the full salvation and sanctification of all matter. The Greek word for “Baptism” means to be immersed. Before it is all over, the entire world will be “immersed” in God and transformed. It will be freed from sin and made new! The entire Universe is God's creation. His Wisdom and love are revealed in its design; his Word brought it into being. The breath of His Spirit sustains and redeems it.
The Christian faith does not teach that the created order is evil. Nor does it teach that humanity has nothing good left within it. (Though, some theologies in certain segments of the Christian world come awfully close to both proclaiming and demonstrating that mistake.)
Sometimes the confusion comes over the word rendered in English “world.” The word “world” is used in two contexts in the sacred scriptures.
First, the scripture speaks of that “world”, the created order, that God so loved that He sent His only Son. (See, St. John 3:16). He hasn’t changed His mind! He still “sends” His Son into that world through those who are baptized into Him and form His Body on the earth which is His Church. This Church lives and works in that creation that He made out of love and gave to us! The Church is called to continue His work of redemption and re-creation in Christ. He still looks at this world and says “it is good” (Genesis 1:31)
Then there is the use of the word “world” to refer to a system that has no room for God and which, like its inhabitants, is affected and corrupted by sin. Sin involves the rejection of God and His plan. It is a wrong use of our freedom to choose. That wrong choice not only affects us, it affects the world in which we live.
At the center of our nature, that which makes us different than all other creatures, is our capacity to choose. The very “Imago Dei” or “Image of God” is manifested in our capacity to make choices. Sin is the wrong choice. The “Original Sin” of our first parents, corrupted not only the entire human race but the creation itself.
The order of the entire universe was affected by that sin. The system that has no room for God is now under the power of the Evil One. This created order in rebellion is also called “the world” in the Bible. It is a system at odds with God. This is the “world” we are warned of when the apostle writes “love not the world nor the things of the world” (1 John 2:15)
God came into this world to redeem it. On that great day, when He comes again, that work of redemption will be fully complete and the cry of the Book of Revelations will be heard throughout the entire universe “The Kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ (Revelations 11:15)
The world created as “good” has been corrupted, the men and women meant for communion with their Creator, have been marred and disfigured by sin. We needed a Redeemer, one like us in all things but sin. One who, because He was Divine could win for us the full redemption from the penalty of our sin and who, because He was human, could transform our mortal bodies to be like His Resurrected Body.
We are not born into a world that now reflects only its Creator's beautiful design. No, we are now born into a world system where matter and people are used as products for evil ends. Even so, the creation still reveals the beauty of Gods design and men and women, the apple of His eye, the “crown” of His creation, still reflect His Image. Both reflection and Image are marred by sin and must be redeemed.
Descending into the waters of the Jordan Jesus, God the Son, who now shares our humanity, makes that living water a sign of his redemptive, re-creative presence. The waters of Baptism now flow with mercy. The Creator who spoke those waters into being through the Son, now condescends to step down from heaven in the Son, take on our flesh, and be immersed into the waters.
Once, the Spirit hovered over the waters. Now the Word Incarnate descends into Jordan's water making it holy. In so doing, He begins the redemptive, re-creation of the universe. Jesus Christ’s immersion, his descent into the Jordan, begins the redemption, the re-creation of all matter. We are invited into its continued mission.
This redemption of the entire created universe, of all matter, is an ongoing work. We who are now baptized into Him are called to share in this work. The public mission and ministry of Jesus began at the waters of Jordan. It continues now through His Church.
As sons and daughters of that Church, we carry on His public ministry through time into eternity. We are invited on this great Feast to learn to live our lives in the “Theophany” of God.
When we live our lives “immersed in God” we reveal the Love of the Trinity to the entire human race,”.
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for December 2013
General Intention: Victimized Children. That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need.
Missionary Intention: Prepare the Savior's Coming. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.
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