The Baptism of Jesus

Talk to the Aberdeenshire Theological Club
20 January 2014


Thank you for the opportunity to speak to this venerable Club. It was about this time of year, last year, that I received your kind invitation. For liturgical reasons, the Baptism of the Lord was in my mind, and so I chose that. It is an event in Jesus’ life which has always attracted and intrigued me.

I have to confess immediately that I am not a biblical or any other kind of scholar, nor an academic theologian. I am a monk, I was an abbot, and now I am a bishop. And my encounter with the topic has been first of all liturgical. This has led me, certainly, to read around the subject, but the Lord’s Baptism has been for me principally something celebrated with my brethren and others, or reflected on with them as abbot, or preached on as a bishop.

The feasts of the liturgical year are sacramental in nature. They are symbolic representations of divine deeds and contain within them the virtus or power of those deeds. Each feast is a doorway to a mystery, to one refraction of the single, indivisible ‘mystery of Christ’ (Eph 3:4).

Here is St Gregory Nazianzen, opening a sermon for the day: ‘At his birth, we duly kept the feast, both I, its leader, and you, and so did everything in the world and above the world… Now we have come to another action of Christ, and another mystery. I cannot restrain my pleasure; I am taken up into God. I proclaim the good news as if I were John’ (Oration on the Holy Lights XXXIX, 14).

The Roman Martyrology (edition of 2001) presents this feast as follows:

‘The feast of the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, on which he is wonderfully declared the beloved Son of God, the waters are sanctified, man is purified and the world exults with joy.’

So I would like to follow this movement from ‘feast’ to ‘mystery’.

Let me first, though, summarise briefly the ‘fundamental theology’ that underpins my presentation.

Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan is a verifiable historical datum. Never a mere brute fact, never without a cargo of inner meaning, it forms part of the original apostolic proclamation. It is witnessed to by the New Testament, specifically by the Synoptics and Acts and the Gospel of John. Its principal means of transmission and actualisation through time has been liturgical. So it remains present both through Scripture and through Tradition. And this predominantly liturgical Tradition of course includes the reading of Scripture and overflows into homiletics that ‘exegete’ the biblical passages read.

I: The Feast

The Baptism of Christ would seem to have formed the oldest Christian feast outside the Easter cycle.

It has been mooted that it goes back to the first years of the 2nd century. It has also been suggested that the Synoptic Gospels arranged their presentation of traditional material according to the liturgical cycle.

Be that as it may, the feast is certainly ancient. It pre-dates that of the Nativity. It may have originated in Egypt. The first explicit testimony comes from Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c.215), who notes that the feast was also celebrated by the Gnostic Basilideans in early January. This date has been connected to that of an Egyptian festival of the Nile.

In the Syrian world the feast appears from the second half of the 3rd c. By the time of St Ephrem (c. 306-373), it would be the major festival of the year, the same holding true of Armenia.

In the Greek world, it became the great feast of the Theophany, celebrated on 6th January. Originally it seemed to telescope Jesus’ birth and baptism, but as the East gradually adopted the Western feast of Christmas, so the focus of the Theophany became restricted to the baptism. It would accompanied by the blessing of the waters, a rite also found in the Oriental Orthodox churches. It would rank third in the order of feasts after Easter and Pentecost.

In the Latin world, the Epiphany, imported from the East, focussed largely on the manifestation of the Child Jesus to the magi, that is, the pagan world. This is clear from the homilies of Pope Leo the Great and remains so today. However, in some places, such as Aquileia and Milan, the Epiphany had the Baptism as its theme, and another non-Roman tradition had the Epiphany marking three manifestations: to the magi, at the Jordan and at Cana, This is found, for example, in the homilies of St Peter Chrysologus, and lives on today in certain antiphons of the Roman Office and in the Roman Martyrology.

In time, though, the West would give the Baptism a little more room. From the end of the 8th c., when the Epiphany developed an octave, it became customary to read the account of the Baptism on the 8th day. This continued in the post-Tridentine Missal, even though the octave day still kept its primary focus on the manifestation to the magi.

The French liturgies of the 18th c., however, provided the octave day with proper chants and readings and some proper prayers, all with the Baptism as their theme.

With the last sixty years, however, the Baptism has come into its own. From 1955, the Roman calendar declared 13th January a Commemoration of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In 1969, the post-conciliar Calendar raised it to the level of a feast / festum and had it conclude the Christmas season. Where the Epiphany is kept on 6th January, the Baptism is observed on the following Sunday. Where Epiphany is kept on a Sunday between the 2nd and 8th January, the Baptism will fall either on the next Sunday or, if Epiphany falls on the 7th or 8th, on the Monday immediately following. The same pattern, I think, is observed in the Anglican and Lutheran communions.

This means that, as the Easter cycle ends with the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and their companions at Pentecost, so the Christmas cycle concludes with the descent of the Holy Spirit on Christ. And as the public life of the Church flows from Pentecost, so that of Christ begins from his Baptism. The daily liturgical reading of the Gospel of Mark begins the day after the Baptism.

So in recent times the Roman Liturgy has seen a heightening of the liturgical celebration of this feast.

This is, I’d suggest, the effect of various factors:

  • a renewed sense of the importance of Jesus’ baptism in the biblical narrative;
  • a consciousness of the significance attributed the Theophany in the various Eastern traditions;
  • a desire to highlight the place of Baptism in the making of the Christian;
  •  a renewed theological and spiritual interest in the role of the Holy Spirit.

So, a conflation of biblical, pastoral, ecumenical and theological factors.

I’m grateful to have been a beneficiary of this liturgical enrichment.

My own background is monastic, and the liturgy I have lived with as a monk has been Roman in its celebration of the Eucharist and monastic in that of the Office.

The material is rich indeed.

As regards the Eucharistic liturgy, it is contained in the Graduale Romanum, the Lectionary and the Roman Missal. The latter includes proper prayers and a proper Preface, all – bar the alternative Collect – new compositions. The Lectionary offers, according to a 3 year cycle, readings from Isaiah 40, 42 and 55, and from Acts, Titus and 1 John, and the three Synoptic accounts of the event.

As regards the monastic Office, the Thesaurus of the Monastic Liturgy of the Hours offers 31 possible antiphons, the Liber Hymnarius 3 hymns (2 from the 10th c. and one earlier), and the various available lectionaries a plethora of patristic readings. These include Ss Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory the Wonderworker, Gregory of Antioch, Gregory Palamas, Hippolytus, Ephrem and Chromatius of Aquileia.

There is an interesting footnote regarding the antiphons. In the early years of the 9th c, a Byzantine legation was visiting the court of Charlemagne. It being that time of the year, they celebrated the Theophany according to their own rite. The Emperor was very taken with what he heard, and asked for the pieces to be translated into Latin and incorporated into the Latin Office. And so thereafter, during the octave of the Epiphany, there was this textual and musical ‘foreign body’ of lush, un-biblical Byzantine antiphons. I think they fell by the wayside after the Council of Trent (as they were also superseded in the Byzantine tradition). They have now reappeared in both the Roman and monastic offices. The most memorable is perhaps Veterem hominem, the Magnificat antiphon for 1st Vespers:

‘Renewing the old man, the Saviour comes to baptism, so as to restore through water corrupted nature, vesting us in a garment of incorruptibility.’

So much for the feast. Let me now turn to its content, the ‘mystery’. My sources here are biblical, liturgical, patristic and contemporary. Particularly useful has been the work of the American Benedictine, Kilian McDonnell: The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: the Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1996).

I regret not having taken account of iconography, Western as well as Eastern. There is much there.

II: What the Baptism is not

First, there is ground to clear. There have been and there are interpretations of the Baptism which fail to do it justice.

1) The Baptism is not an admission of personal sin on Jesus’ part

The Baptist ‘proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mk 1:4). So why does Jesus ask for it? This was an embarrassment. Perhaps the dialogue between John and Jesus with which Matthew prefaces his account is already addressing this. The statement that ‘it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness’ (Mt 3:15) is placed here in part to clarify Jesus’ sinlessness. Jesus’ motive is obedience, not a need for personal cleansing. Likewise, the prefatory exclamation of the Baptist in the 4th Gospel seems to have the same function: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn 1:29). Jesus enters into John’s baptism and changes its meaning from within. The tradition will be emphatic that he was baptised to take away our sins, not to be rid of his own.

‘A great mystery is declared today, says one antiphon, in the Jordan the Creator of the world purges away our misdeeds (expurgat nostra facinora).’

2) The Baptism is not the ‘making’ of Jesus.

The words ‘You are / this is my beloved Son’ do not make Jesus such. Nor does the Holy Spirit descend on someone previously Spirit-less.

Against the Gnostics, this is not the moment Jesus becomes the Christ. Against the Adoptionists and Ebionites, it is not the moment he received divine sonship and the power to work miracles. According to St Cyril of Alexandria, the Arians gave ‘a big laugh’ when they read of Jesus’ baptism, but this is not the moment he received a Holy Spirit of whom he had been until then bereft. Is it not suggestive that all the Gospels, in differing ways, already indicate Jesus’ sonship prior to the account of his Baptism (Mt 2:15; Mk 1:1; Lk 1:32; Jn 1:18)? And John certainly makes it clear that if the Spirit descends and remains on Jesus it is because he will baptise with the Holy Spirit. Once again, what might be instinctive readings are subverted from inside.

There is no doubt that Jesus’ Baptism was a focus of liturgical celebration and polemical interest for various heterodox groups. Yet the orthodox tradition didn’t lamely hand it over to them. Rather, developing the two accents already present in Scripture, it stressed the elements of epiphany – the manifestation of what is already true – and inverse causality: Jesus receives only to give. As Newman succinctly put it, ‘He is manifested as receiving, so that he might be believed on in giving.’

3) The Baptism is not the story of a ‘call’.

This is the modern psychologising variant of the above. It would propose that Jesus’ Baptism was a eureka moment for him, one in which he became aware of his identity and mission. This is a remnant really of liberal scholarship or 19th c. lives of Jesus which still prove homiletically attractive for some.

It would indeed be crypto-Monophysite to deny outright any experiential impact of his Baptism on Jesus, or to strip it of any constitutive role in his human life. I’ll come back to this later. It was certainly what Kilian McDonnell calls ‘a boundary event’. It is an attractive suggestion that Jesus himself spoke of his Baptism to his disciples, of what happened that day by the Jordan. How else would it have entered into the kerygma? But beyond that, most contemporary exegesis would be wisely reluctant to move. The texts themselves do not have the structure of ‘call narratives’. Rather, they reflect their authors’ desire to establish Jesus’ identity at the very beginning of the Gospel, not to probe his inner experiences. In any case, ‘Jesus stands above our psychologising’ (R. Guardini).

Once again, the implicit exegesis in those words ‘Epiphany’ / ‘Theophany’ seems a better guide.

III: Something of What the Baptism is

So, not an admission of personal sinfulness, not a moment of becoming what he previously wasn’t, not a vocational experience. But what then?

I’d like to touch, at the risk of rushing, on seven aspects. I’m hoping to speak from within the tradition. I am taking the truth of the biblical witness and the validity of the doctrinal and liturgical tradition for granted. I fear that what I have to offer is rather gauche, and falls into a no man’s land between sermon and academic exposition, while managing to be neither. But here it is. Certainly it is a worthy and most suggestive subject.

1) The Baptism of Jesus is the climax of John’s ministry.

This is something of a preliminary.

Evidently, John’s disciples remained an identifiable group long after his death, and the evangelists felt a pastoral need to highlight the subordination of John to Jesus. Does this have to be a falsification?

And if not, if the Gospel portrait of the Forerunner corresponds to the truth, then we’re free to say that at the moment of Jesus’ Baptism John became in the full sense the Baptist. This was the moment his prophetic ministry reached its fulfilment, its telos, its highpoint. The poet St Ephrem has John exclaiming, ‘Man of dust that I am, let deepest reverence enfold me when I behold the height to which I have been called – even to laying my hand on the head of my Maker!’ (Hymn 14).

Bewildered at Jesus’ request, John nevertheless consents. ‘Then he allowed him’, says the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 3:15). For all its brevity – three Greek words – this is as eloquent as Mary’s famous response to a still more bewildering divine move: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word.’ And it looks forward to the unforgettable version John the Evangelist attributes the Baptist himself: ‘He must increase, I must decrease’ (Jn 3:30). The Baptism is the moment John hears the Bridegroom’s voice, rejoices, and prepares to step aside. Through the washing of water, the Bridegroom is claiming his Bride, and the mission of the ‘friend of the bridegroom’ (Jn 3:29) is accomplished. One could say that here in embryo is a whole theology of Christian ministry.

What greater endorsement of John’s ministry could Jesus have given? Later in the Gospels he will praise him verbally. Here he does so by a symbolic action. Perhaps one can say this: Jesus’ Baptism is first of all his baptism the person and ministry of John.

This, as I say, is a preliminary.

2) The Baptism of Jesus is a Beginning

It is a ‘boundary event’ indeed, with a clear before and after, a crossing of a decisive threshold. Most of all it’s a beginning – or to use that theologically dense Greek word an archē.

The Baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, and any attempt at a historical reconstruction of the story of Jesus will ‘begin’ from his baptism.

Mark speaks of ‘the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (Mk 1:1); Luke speaks of those ‘who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word’ (Lk 1:2), and says that Jesus ‘when he began his ministry was about thirty years of age’ (Lk 3:23); Peter, early in Acts, speaks of Jesus beginning (Acts 1:22) and, later, to Cornelius and his household, speaks of ‘the word proclaimed beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached (Acts 10:37).  The reference is always, more or less precisely, to Jesus’ Baptism.

According to some, when 1 John speaks of ‘that which was from the beginning’, the Baptism is in mind.

In any case, the word ‘beginning’, applied to the Jesus’ Baptism, is more than a merely chronological indicator. The word already has something of the density it will attain in Colossians, John and Revelation.

Jesus’ Baptism marks a definite moment in the history of salvation, the opening of a new stage: ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. It is the ‘beginning of the Gospel’ in Mark’s strong phrase. It falls on a line of beginnings: his conception before it, his resurrection after it. St Ephrem links Mary’s womb, the River Jordan and the underworld / tomb as three ‘wombs’ from which Christ is ‘born’. Behind these temporal beginnings and reverberating in them is that transcendent ‘beginning’ we call his eternal generation. They in turn look forward to that beginning of the Christ-life in us we call baptism. ‘Today’, says Maximus of Turin preaching on the Epiphany, Christ ‘is reborn in the sacraments…generated through a mystery’ (Sermon 1), meaning that our baptism derives its efficacy as rebirth, as a beginning, from that birth and beginning which his was.

Again there is a change of perspective: Jesus passes from being the genitive of a moment in time, called a beginning, to being the nominative: he is the beginning. This ‘beginning’ is not simply something that befell Jesus; it is something he made happen. He made it happen because of who he is, the great initiator, the ‘beginning of God’s creation’ (Rev 3:14).

3) The Baptism of Jesus is his anointing for mission as Messiah.

None of the Gospel accounts of the Baptism speak explicitly of Jesus being anointed or as the Christ. But both ideas are there. The aspect of anointing is present in the allusion to Isaiah 61:1 and becomes explicit in the synagogue of Nazareth, and again in Peter’s declaration to Cornelius in Acts 10: ‘God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power.’ Here it is the anointing for ‘prophecy’. The aspect of Christhood is present in the words of the Voice: ‘You are / this is my beloved Son’. This echoes Ps 2:7 and evokes that whole royal and messianic Psalm. This reference is made explicit in certain manuscripts of Luke 3:22, where the Father says: ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you.’ Here the Baptism becomes a royal enthronement. The better attested version, ‘my favour rests on him’, evokes the Servant of Isaiah 42. But Acts 4:27 happily speaks of ‘your holy servant Jesus, whom you did anoint.’ And so we come full circle. Jesus’ Baptism is a messianic moment.

The one on whom the Spirit descends and rests and whom the Father announces is at once Prophet, King and Servant of the Lord, the Anointed whom Israel awaited. The intent of the narratives is, as said above, primarily declarative, epiphanic. It is to proclaim or publicise what is, not to signify an inner transformation or emotional upheaval. One would hesitate to say that, in the mind of the evangelists, Jesus ‘became’ the Christ at this point, or became anything that he was not already. This would be to revert to the Gnostic, Adoptionist or Arian misreading, already set aside.

Yet there is something ‘constitutive’ or at least ‘consecratory’ going on. Perhaps, borrowing Pauline phraseology from a parallel context, we can call it ‘establishment in power’ (cf. Rom 1:4). If the Baptism does represent a beginning of the Gospel, a new stepping forth of God’s Word into human history, it could only be accompanied by a new breathing-forth, a fresh empowerment of the Spirit. And it is under the sign of this powerful anointing that the Gospels set all that ensues in Jesus’ ministry. His encounter with the Tempter in the desert (Lk 4:1, Mk 1:12), his return to Galilee (Lk 4:14) and his entire Galilean ministry; his casting out of demons (Mt 12:28); the evangelising of the poor, the releasing of captives, returning sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed, proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord (cf. Lk 4:18-19); the proclamation of justice to the Gentiles (Mt 12:18, Is 42:2): all of this flows from, is linked to, is enabled and energised by the anointing given Jesus at his Baptism. Something happened to him, therefore, as he rose from the river. And this must surely have had a repercussion in his self-awareness, a psychological dimension. Jesus, in his developing human consciousness, became more explicitly aware of who he was and what he had to do. The Father’s voice is heard above the water, and Jesus’ public ministry begins. It is heard again, on the mountain of the Transfiguration, as he turns to Jerusalem.

Before leaving this reflection on Jesus’ messianic anointing, it’s worth mentioning how St Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-387), in his 3rd Mystagogical Catechesis, uses the Lord’s Baptism as a paradigm of chrismation / confirmation, and not simply of baptism.I am not aware, though, of any connections made with the Sacrament of Orders. Is there a potential there too?

4) The Baptism of Jesus anticipates his Paschal Mystery.

Here we enter deeper waters.

In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist precedes his ‘report’ of the Baptism with the statement, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world’ (Jn 1:29). This connects the beginning and the end of Jesus’ public life. Compare 1 John 5:6: ‘This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood.’ St Ephrem widens the perspective in one of his Epiphany hymns: ‘his birth is followed by his baptism, and it is tied to his baptism. Then his baptism hurries on to his death; his death without a break attains to his resurrection. There are four bridges that lead to his kingdom. Behold his flock follows his footsteps’ (Hymns on Epiphany 10:9).

There is much to explore here.

St Luke’s account deliberately links the Baptism of Jesus and that of ‘all the people’ (Lk 3:21). Jesus, as the Servant, wills to be ‘counted with the transgressors’ (Is 53:12), to be in solidarity with sinners, to descend, as it were, to their level. The Incarnation was a first step. The Baptism is a second, and anticipates the third and definitive one. By being baptised, that is ‘immersed’, by going down into, even under the water, he anticipates the ‘baptism’ – as he himself calls it – of his bloody death (cf Mk 10:38; Lk 12:50). ‘Jesus’ baptism is prophetic of his passion. Jesus is baptized in view of his death’ (K. McDonnell, op. cit., p.167). ‘His immersion in the river Jordan’, says Hans Urs von Balthasar, ‘bespeaks a first “cultic” anticipation of his definite baptismal immersion in the abyss of chaos’ (Explorations in Theology IV, p. 406). Paul’s theology of baptism in Romans 6 is of course relevant here.

It’s worth pausing beside the river here, and taking ech element in turn.

This water, into which Christ goes, evokes so many biblical memories. It is that of the original chaos of Genesis to which creation has to some extent reverted since the advent of sin. It’s the water of divine judgement, like that of Noah’s flood. It’s the water of the Red Sea and, indeed, of the Jordan. It’s the water that rises to the neck in Ps 68. It’s the water of Ps 73 where the dragons and Leviathan lurk. It is a symbol of the waters of history that assume the nature of a destructive flood and wash up those columns of refugees on alien shores that we so often today. Into such ‘waters’ Christ will go on the Cross and in his descent into Sheol. These are the waters of his Passion.

And from them he emerges. Interestingly, the Synoptics never speak of Jesus’ descent into the Jordan – merely of him being baptised. But Matthew and Mark do speak of him ‘ascending’ and, where they have ‘ascending’, Luke has ‘praying’. So there is a two-fold upward movement. And the coming forth from the waters is no less eloquent than the going into them.

Nova creatio surgit de flumine, says an antiphon, quae illuminat omne saeculum. The emergent Christ is the new creation, the new ‘sun’, the new humanity rising from the waters of chaos. He is the new Noah beginning humanity anew after the flood. He is Moses leading his people out of Egypt. He is the true Joshua / Jesus crossing the river into the definitive Promised Land. He is the victor, trampling down the power of evil lurking in the flowing waters of time. ‘The Saviour crushed the head of the dragon in the river Jordan,’ says another antiphon, ‘rescuing everyone from its power’. This is the sober Roman liturgy! And all of it is a theology of the Resurrection.

Then the three phenomena follow: the opening of the heavens, the dove-like descent of the Spirit, and the heavenly Voice. They too adumbrate. The opening of the heavens closed since the sin of Adam, the dove presaging a new creation, the presentation of a beloved Son enjoying favour: here is the kingdom of grace made visible and audible. Here are the Resurrection and Pentecost and access to the Father, and an iconography of baptismal grace.

By his going into the water, Jesus signifies his acceptance of the role of the suffering Servant, the Lamb of God. By the events that follow his re-emergence, the Father signifies his acceptance of the Son’s humble obedience and the transformation it will effect.

The Baptism is a pre-glimpse, a trailer, a prophecy of the Paschal Mystery.

5) The Baptism of Jesus is an Epiphany / Theophany.

This flows naturally from the last.

An epiphany or theophany is first of all an irradiation, an explosion of light. Light will be a very prominent theme in the Eastern liturgies of the Baptism, and ‘the feast of the holy lights’ one of its names.

The light that shines here is Trinitarian. This is the emphasis of the liturgical exegesis. The Baptism shares with Jesus’ conception and transfiguration a very clear Trinitarian shape, something that again is most resplendent in the Resurrection (cf Romans 1:4).

‘At your baptism in the Jordan, O Christ our Saviour’, says a Byzantine troparion, ‘the revelation of the Trinity was made manifest: for the voice of the Father was heard, the Son was seen in the form of a servant, and the Holy Spirit descended as a dove! All Holy Trinity, glory to you!’

Here is St Bonaventure: ‘Once regenerated in him, delve into his secrets, so that on the banks of the River Jordan you may know the Father in the voice, the Son in the flesh, and the Holy Spirit in the dove; and the heaven of the Trinity being opened to you, you may be carried up to God.’

To the Greeks and the Latins, let’s add a Syrian, Jacob of Serugh (c. 451-521), who brings out the Trinity’s hold on the human senses: ‘The Trinity was revealed by three senses: the Father by the voice, the Son by the touch, and the Spirit by sight… The hearing was filled by the Father, the touch by the Son and the sight by the Spirit. One single God was heard, touched and seen. Three persons were recognised, proclaimed and adored’ (Homily on the Epiphany 35).

The Theophany is of course above all a Christophany, but one which locates Jesus, as it were, within the communion of the Trinity, which discloses his ‘trinitarian pedigree’. Interesting that immediately afterwards, Luke traces his human pedigree back to Adam.

For us too, ‘the Jordan is the locus of the Trinitarian knowledge of God’, says Kilian McDonnell (op. cit., p.49). We enter the Jordan through our baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19).

6) The Baptism of Jesus is ‘the sanctification of the waters’.

We move now from the Trinitarian climax to the cosmic consequences.

‘Each blest drop, on each blest limb,

Is washed itself in washing him’ (Richard Crashaw).

The notion that Jesus’ Baptism purified water / the waters is first found in St Ignatius of Antioch’s To the Ephesians: ‘For our God, Jesus the Christ, was carried in the womb by Mary according to God’s plan – of the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit – who was born and baptized that by his suffering he might purify the water’ (Eph 18:2). It could be, say the scholars, that Ignatius is using an already familiar idea. It is certainly echoed in Clement of Alexandria (Eclog. Proph. 7, 1): ‘and for this reason the Saviour was baptized that he might purify all water for those being reborn.’ Yes, water now ceases to be ‘a lair of the dragons’ as the Byzantine ritual puts it. It is exorcised, and becomes capable of being the handmaid of the Holy Spirit in the sanctification of baptism. The fire of God enters into it and it becomes capable of burning away sin – another topos of the feast.

‘All water’, says Clement of Alexandria. It was not just the few drops of water that encountered Christ’s body which were sanctified but water as such, St Thomas Aquinas carefully clarified.

The wider use of water in the Christian tradition does all flow from here. Not for nothing do the Eastern rites follow their church celebration with a procession to the nearest river or lake or harbour or seashore. The blessing of the baptismal water at the Easter Vigil or of holy water on a Sunday is also ad rem. Through the Paschal Mystery, water is given back its original positive identity and turned to divine purposes. At Lourdes, the healings come through water.

This idea, though, of the sanctifying of the waters sometimes expands further, and then meets up with the contemporary concern with creation. Water is something so primal and primary, so indispensable to life, that it can stand as a part for the whole. One antiphon for Lauds begins: ‘the springs of water are sanctified’, but it ends, ‘for Christ our God has sanctified every created thing’, omnem creaturam. And this antiphon accompanies the Canticle of the Three Young men in Daniel, a canticle for the whole of creation.

‘In the Jordan’, writes one Benedictine theologian, ‘[Christ] sanctifies all the waters of the earth, affirming the goodness of the planet, pronouncing a sentence of death on the gloomy subterranean spirits which impede us from living gloriously on the face of the earth’ (Gregory Collins, Meeting Christ in his Mysteries, p.222).

7) The Baptism of Christ is the source and pattern of ours.

This is to gather up the threads running through all the above. Here in a way, we pass from exegesis to actualisation. If the liturgical celebration of Christ’s Baptism offers an exegesis of this event, it is the sacrament of baptism which actualises it in the lives of believers.

I must be rather schematic here.

Firstly – to use a category of Western theology – it can be proposed that the sacrament of baptism was instituted by Christ’s. There have been other episodes and words in the Gospel story that have been claimed here, not least the command to baptise that concludes Matthew’s Gospel. One would have to clarify what is meant by institution, and one would have to hold to the proposition that everything sacramental is derivative of the paschal Christ, takes its power from his Passion as St Thomas would say.

On this topic St Thomas clearly says that the sacrament of baptism receives its power from Christ’s own baptism, but that the obligation of receiving baptism was only and fittingly promulgated after his passion and resurrection.

I answer that, As stated above (Question [62]Article [1]), sacraments derive from their institution the power of conferring grace. Wherefore it seems that a sacrament is then instituted, when it receives the power of producing its effect. Now Baptism received this power when Christ was baptized. Consequently Baptism was truly instituted then, if we consider it as a sacrament. But the obligation of receiving this sacrament was proclaimed to mankind after the Passion and Resurrection. First, because Christ’s Passion put an end to the figurative sacraments, which were supplanted by Baptism and the other sacraments of the New Law. Secondly, because by Baptism man is “made conformable” to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, in so far as he dies to sin and begins to live anew unto righteousness. Consequently it behoved Christ to suffer and to rise again, before proclaiming to man his obligation of conforming himself to Christ’s Death and Resurrection.

This, for all its legal language, stands in the line of Ignatius of Antioch: ‘he submitted to baptism so that by his suffering he might sanctify the water.’

‘The baptism of Jesus is the institution of Christian baptism because therein is found the effective content of the sacrament…Christ’s baptism is the efficacious source of Christian baptism because the interior reality of the first is made effective in the second’ (K. McDonnell, pp. 186, 195).

‘In Christ’s baptism at the hands of John, our own baptismal regeneration is already accomplished by anticipation. The many celebrations of the Eucharist are all a participation in the single and unique Last Supper; and in a similar way all our individual baptisms are a sharing in the baptism of Christ – they are the means whereby the ‘grace of Jordan’ is extended, so that it may be appropriated by each one of us personally.’ Thus writes the Orthodox Kallistos Ware (The Festal Menaion, p. 58).

But what I would most want to end with is the pastoral value of seeing Christ’s Baptism as not only efficient cause, but also exemplary cause of Christian baptism – as a paradigm, model, icon of it – or, in the words just used, to revive a sense of baptism, and by extension of our whole Christian existence, as a participation in the ‘grace of Jordan’. Not, needless to say, to the exclusion of other perspectives found in the New Testament and Tradition.

Surely the themes of beginning, of missionary empowerment, of anticipatory participation in the Paschal Mystery, of the ‘opening of the heaven of the Trinity’ are all relevant. The destructive potential hidden in the transience of human life, symbolised by water, is overcome for the Christian by the grace of Jordan. Nothing that life can throw at us, as it were, need overwhelm and submerge us. Because the Christian is a new creation who has risen from the water, a transformation of a creation – a right use, a turning to praise – can begin around him or her. The Christological, Trinitarian, missionary or prophetic, cosmic dimensions of Christian Baptism are already anticipated in Christ’s.

How aptly located the feast is – at the end of Christmastide and not so long before the beginning of Lent. Kilian McDonnell’s thorough study ends on this note: ‘The relation of the baptism of Jesus to the temptation in the desert would indicate that baptism is for real life, for struggle and trials. Christians would find more support in the stress of modern life’ (op. cit., p.247).


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