Today, as it were, we fast forward. The child in the manger is suddenly an adult by the river. Instead of the arms of his mother, there’s the voice of the Father: “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.” Instead of a birth, a baptism. Today John the Baptist’s mission comes to its climax and conclusion, and the prophetic baton, as it were, is passed to Jesus. He is anointed by the Holy Spirit and goes out to his life’s work, “doing good and curing all who had fallen into the power of the devil.”
All four Gospels, in their different ways, have Jesus’ public life begin with him receiving a baptism in the Jordan from the hands of John. John is baffled by Jesus’ request. So were the early Christians. Why did the Sinless One undergo a ritual meant for sinners?
Yes, why did “righteousness – God’s will – demand” this? Why did he go down into the water?
Let’s take a step back. As our Creed says so magnificently, Jesus is the Son of God. He exists from all eternity, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, and “for us, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven and was made man”. He came down, descendit de caelis. This isn’t space travel or astrophysics; it’s metaphor for the divine humility. There’s a lover in search of his beloved, approaching us step by step. “Come down” means come close. First, he’s “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” The Son of God becomes a son of man. With a body and a psyche like ours. With a mother, with a family, with a people. Child of a particular place and time, like us. Having to learn, having to work. And now at his baptism, he takes a second step down. He goes under the water, submarine. It’s divine humility again, the Lover in search of his beloved. The Fisherman fishing. Coming closer. It’s the same dynamic.
But why water? Water, water, it’s such a thing. It’s everywhere in the Bible. It means so many things. Water is at the beginning of creation, of the life of our planet. Genesis opens with the Spirit of God moving over the waters. So, Jesus goes into water to say something new is beginning. Again, water – take Noah’s flood – means cleansing; it’s to wash away sin. So Jesus enters the waters to put himself beside everyone longing to be clean, forgiven, yearning to start again. He joins the queue of John’s penitents, and grubby humanity suddenly has the Sinless One in its midst. Again, in the Psalms and Prophets, water means trials, life’s difficulties, the things that overwhelm us and can wash us away. “Save me, O God, cries a psalmist, for the waters have risen to my neck” (Ps 68:1). Water a flood, water suggesting personal misfortune, others’ negativity, foreign invasion, events turning against us; humanity “not waving but drowning”. There’s an ancient human instinct that, in deep water, lurks a dragon or a monster. When Jesus goes into the water, it means he will go into this darkness, share the experience with us. His baptism is a symbolic rehearsal of his Passion and death: “I have a baptism to undergo”, he’ll say. That will be divine humility going further still, a third step completing the second. “He was humbler yet, and became obedient even unto death, death on a cross.” He would let himself be drowned under human hostility, washed, as it were, downstream. The Lover in search of his drowned beloved, his Ophelia.
He comes to the water. Perhaps there’s another aspect too. 500 years before Jesus, a Greek philosopher – Heraclitus – famously said, “No one steps twice into the same river”. Why not? Because if I go into the river one minute and then again three minutes later, the water is not the same. And from that he inferred, “everything flows”, everything is in flux. So Jesus, on the brink of his public ministry, about to become an actor in history, goes down into the flowing river. He enters our experience of time, of everything passing, of change and transience. “I have sunk into the mud of the deep and there is no foothold” (Ps 68:2), says the Psalmist again. Life and society today have been called “liquid” (Zygmunt Bauman). So many solid things being washed away. So many uncertainties and unclarities. Marriage and family, my trade or my profession no longer guarantee stability or identity in the ways they might have fifty years ago. Nor can my own country: how many have to migrate. How many of us can be sure where we’ll be or what be doing this time next year? “Everything flows”, everything is in flux.
Down from the hill town of Nazareth, down to the valley of the Jordan comes the Lord. Down under the waters, the “immensity of waters”, goes the Lord. Into the creativity of water, into its cleansing power, into its liquidity, into its destructive potential, he goes. He enters into all it is and symbolises, all it stands for in our life for good and ill.
What is going on? “As soon as Jesus was baptised he came up from the waters.” He came up. The heavens open – communication restored. The Dove descends – the Flood recedes. The Voice “resounds on the waters” – the one born, baptised and crucified is declared Son of God. As the going down looks to his Passion, so the coming up looks to his resurrection. After the three steps down – birth, baptism, death – come the three steps up: resurrection, ascension, the sitting at the Father’s right hand, “the Lord…enthroned over the flood.” Now we know that, if we are in Christ, there is a new creation. We know there is a baptism in the Holy Spirit to forgive our sins. We know there’s something in us no flood of circumstances can drown. We know the satanic monster has been crushed. Nor need we be deterred by any instability, any flux. He is close. “All time belongs to him, and all the ages”; 2020 also, be it liquid or solid, its waters raging or quiet. Divine humility has conquered. The marriage holds, made indissoluble on the Cross. The divine fisherman has us in his net.
Let the Lord speak through Isaiah, one last time this Christmas season: “When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you” (Is 43:2). We can go forward. We have a future.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, 12 January 2020)