THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD 2013
I’ve sometimes wondered if our Romanian Orthodox friends find it peculiar that we don’t have the Magi in our crèche scene as soon as it is set up. For them, December 25, the Nativity of our Lord, also incorporates the visit of the Magi. Of course, we don’t know the actual day or date on which the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, just as we don’t know the actual day or date when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan – which is another episode where the western calendar keeps a different date than the east.
When we are commemorating the arrival of the Magi on January 6, the Orthodox are celebrating Theophany – “an appearance of God”, and more specifically on January 6, our Lord’s Baptism. Also on January 6, their liturgy includes the great blessing of water, after which the parish priest visits all of the homes in his parish for their annual house blessing, using the water blessed on the feast day (which reminds me: is there anyone here who has not yet had their house blessed?).
Our Lord’s Baptism. With only very slight variations, the readings appointed in the Catholic lectionary that we now use are exactly the same as those in our old Anglican tradition, a notable exception being that we now have an additional reading in the Catholic/Anglican Use tradition. Said additional reading is from Chapter 10 of the Acts of the Holy Apostles, in which St Peter underlines the fulfilment of the prophecy from Isaiah in the first reading how that Jesus is the anointed One referred to in the prophecy; and also, that which took place in the Gospel reading at the River Jordan, thus tying all together neatly.
Where there is a somewhat greater divergence in the readings is the Collect for the day. Since our reception into the Catholic Church, and up until now, we may have noticed that, on a given Sunday, the Collect for the day is very close, even verbatim in many cases with those that we knew in our Anglican tradition. And, if we compare them with those from the Roman Missal, allowing for the contrast between modern and Tudor English, they are the same. This should not be surrising, as so very many of the Collects in the Anglican tradition are derived from the Gregorian and Gelasian Sacramentaries from the 6th through 8th centuries – an enduring liturgical bond that transcended the unhappy division in the 16th century.
But, I’m guessing that some may have noticed that, today’s Collect for the Baptism of our Lord, may strike us as more modern than others in terms of form of expression. Perhaps that is because it was lifted directly from the American 1979 Book of Common Prayer, where, as mentioned, most of the other Collects have a more ancient pedigree.
“Why was it not taken from an earlier Prayer Book?” we might ask. While there is a Collect for the feast in the Canadian 1962 (and we’ll visit that momentarily), there was not in the 1662, nor the 1549 for that matter. Why? Well, as a separate feast day, the Baptism of our Lord has only existed since 1955, having been elevated by Pope Pius XII. Prior to that, the episode of our Lord’s Baptism was one of three Gospel passages appointed for reading on … January 6! Therefore, no available prayers from the Gregorian or Gelasian Sacramentaries. Something had to be formulated in the middle of the 20th century.
The current Roman Missal Collect, is, interestingly, closer to the Canadian Prayer Book Collect than is that from the Book of Divine Worship which we heard read at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word.
“Almighty ever-living God, who, when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan and as the holy spirit descended upon him, solemnly declared him your beloved son, grant that your children by adoption, reborn of water and the holy spirit, may always be well pleasing to you…”
The 1962 Canadian BCP version runs, “O Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ did take our nature upon him, and was baptized for our sakes in the river Jordan: Mercifully grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may also be partakers of thy Holy Spirit…”
Note how both express the important beliefs that we are “reborn” or “regenerated”, and become adopted children of God.
The BDW Collect is notably different, “Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan didst proclaim him thy beloved Son and anoint him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Saviour…”
While it does share with the Roman Missal version the fact that God declared Jesus to be His beloved son, it remarkably omits the facts both of adoption and of regeneration.
That was just an interesting aside that would be a good discussion topic at our Bible study group, how that “keeping the covenant” very likely encourages us to think of our baptismal vows, which follow on the acknowledgement of regeneration and adoption.
Let us return to consideration of the feast day itself. Whether it be January 6 or January 13, and whether it be one of the various Collects that attempt to impart the significance of the day, there is good reason indeed for us to pause and consider this not so innocuous episode at the beginning of our Lord’s adult ministry, recorded for us in all four Gospel records, and, for which there is valid basis indeed to consider it separately from other Epiphanytide manifestations of our Blessed Lord.
Perhaps the most obvious question to ask is, “Why did Jesus allow Himself to be baptized?” He certainly didn’t need it for the forgiveness of sins, spiritual regeneration, or being “made by adoption a child of God and inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.” Like so many other things that He did, which He didn’t need to do for His own sake – He did it for us. And when we consider those other things that He did entirely for our benefit, most notably His Passion and Crucifixion, we might tend to think His Baptism less important.
We may also have heard in past sermons or Bible studies various spot-on observations of the importance of His Baptism:
- by it He sanctified the waters of Baptism for all time;
- through the River Jordan, He leads us through the waters of a new Exodus;
- by His baptism, He instituted the sacrament of initiation that bears that name;
- by undergoing baptism, He identified Himself fully with us in our humanity at the very beginning of His public ministry.
But, for a moment, let us put ourselves in the sandals of St John the Baptist. In Matthew’s version of the episode, when Jesus requests baptism at the hands of John, John doesn’t just reply, he fairly blurts out, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” And then Jesus’ answer, which needs a little unravelling, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Although Matthew simply states that John “consented”, we can’t help but think that his mind must have been racing.
Just before Jesus arrives, John had been telling the crowds that he himself is nothing, that there is One coming after him who is infinitely greater. St Hippolytus, 170-235 AD, a pupil of Irenaeus, in addition to his better known writings on the liturgy, wrote something called Discourse on the Holy Theophany. In it, he fleshes out what he presumes must have been going through John’s mind as he was telling the crowds, “I am not the Christ”.
Wherefore John, the forerunner of the Lord, who before knew not this mystery, on learning that He is Lord in truth, cried out, and spake to those who came to be baptized of him, “O generation of vipers,” why look ye so earnestly at me? “I am not the Christ;”(and then Hippolytus presumes to suggest the thoughts that were going through John’s mind) I am the servant, and not the lord; I am the subject, and not the king; I am the sheep, and not the shepherd; I am a man, and not God. By my birth I loosed the barrenness of my mother; I did not make virginity barren. I was brought up from beneath; I did not come down from above. I bound the tongue of my father; I did not unfold divine grace. I was known by my mother, and I was not announced by a star. I am worthless, and the least; but “after me there comes One who is before me”—after me, indeed, in time, but before me by reason of the inaccessible and unutterable light of divinity. “There comes One mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.” I am subject to authority, but He has authority in Himself. I am bound by sins, but He is the Remover of sins. I apply the law, but He bringeth grace to light. I teach as a slave, but He judgeth as the Master. I have the earth as my couch, but He possesses heaven. I baptize with the baptism of repentance, but He confers the gift of adoption: “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.” Why give ye attention to me? I am not the Christ.
And then after being gobsmacked by Jesus’ request that He receive baptism at John’s hand, and for which Hippolytus provides more splendid musings, we move on to Jesus’ reply – quoting Hippolytus again,
And what saith the Lord to him? “Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” “Suffer it to be so now,” John; (here, presuming to tell us what Jesus might have been implying) thou art not wiser than I. Thou seest as man; I foreknow as God. It becomes me to do this first, and thus to teach. I engage in nothing unbecoming, for I am invested with honour. Dost thou marvel, O John, that I am not come in my dignity? The purple robe of kings suits not one in private station, but military splendour suits a king: am I come to a prince, and not to a friend? “Suffer it to be so now for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness:” I am the Fulfiller of the law; I seek to leave nothing wanting to its whole fulfilment, that so after me Paul may exclaim, “Christ is the fulfilling of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.” “Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” Baptize me, John, in order that no one may despise baptism. I am baptized by thee, the servant, that no one among kings or dignitaries may scorn to be baptized by the hand of a poor priest. Suffer me to go down into the Jordan, in order that they may hear my Father’s testimony, and recognise the power of the Son. “Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then at length John suffers Him. “And Jesus, when He was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and the heavens were opened unto Him; and, lo, the Spirit of God descended like a dove, and rested upon Him. And a voice (came) from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Hipploytus resumes his discourse on the episode and its importance, Do you see, beloved, how many and how great blessings we would have lost, if the Lord had yielded to the exhortation of John, and declined baptism? For the heavens were shut before this; the region above was inaccessible. We would in that case descend to the lower parts, but we would not ascend to the upper. But was it only that the Lord was baptized? He also renewed the old man, and committed to him again the sceptre of adoption. For straightway “the heavens were opened to Him.” A reconciliation took place of the visible with the invisible; the celestial orders were filled with joy; the diseases of earth were healed; secret things were made known; those at enmity were restored to amity. For you have heard the word of the evangelist, saying, “The heavens were opened to Him,” on account of three wonders. For when Christ the Bridegroom was baptized, it was meet that the bridal-chamber of heaven should open its brilliant gates. And in like manner also, when the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and the Father’s voice spread everywhere, it was meet that “the gates of heaven should be lifted up.” “And, lo, the heavens were opened to Him; and a voice was heard, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Let us jump ahead some 1800 years to a more contemporary exegesis of the importance of Jesus’ baptism. In the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI states, “The significance of this event could not fully emerge until it was seen in the light of the Cross and Resurrection … Looking at the events in the light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross … This also explains why, in his own discourses, Jesus uses the word baptism to refer to his death (Mark 10.38, Luke 12.50).”
“Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
The Catechism further underlines the Holy Father’s thoughts, “The baptism of Jesus is on his part the acceptance and inauguration of his mission as God’s suffering Servant. He allows himself to be numbered among sinners; he is already “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. Already he is anticipating the “baptism” of his bloody death. Already he is coming to “fulfil all righteousness”, that is, 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. The Father’s voice responds to the Son’s acceptance, proclaiming his entire delight in his Son. The Spirit whom Jesus possessed in fullness from his conception comes to “rest on him”. Jesus will be the source of the Spirit for all mankind. At his baptism “the heavens were opened” – the heavens that Adam’s sin had closed – and the waters were sanctified by the descent of Jesus and the Spirit, a prelude to the new creation.”
St Paul, in his letter to the Church in Rome, explains to us how that Jesus’ baptism and ours are related in a profoundly important way, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Rom. 6.3-5)”
And, as the Catechism further puts it, “Through Baptism the Christian is sacramentally assimilated to Jesus, who in his own baptism anticipates his death and resurrection. The Christian must enter into this mystery of humble self-abasement and repentance, go down into the water with Jesus in order to rise with him, be reborn of water and the Spirit so as to become the Father’s beloved son in the Son and ‘walk in newness of life’.”
“For thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Just as John was our Lord’s forerunner, so too, in a critically important sense, is the Lord our forerunner by His Baptism. At our respective Baptisms when we were born from above, born anew, of water and the Holy Spirit, as Jesus tried to teach Nicodemus in the garden (John Ch. 3), we became sons and daughters of God. What an awesome doorway was opened to us at the River Jordan! May we ever make it our duty as sons and daughters to do His will so that, in us also, He might be well pleased.
ANNUNCIATION OTTAWA 2013 CLR