Jan 8, 2016
In the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church we end the Christmas season this Sunday with the Feast of the Lord's Baptism in the Jordan. Some of the most beautiful readings found in the Office of Readings come on the days between the Feast of the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord. That compilation is a part of the Liturgy of the Hours.
The Liturgy of the Hours is also called the Breviary. It is the formal baseline prayer of all Clergy, Bishops, Priests and deacons, as well as those in the religious or consecrated life. However, since the last great Church Council, Vatican II, this official Prayer of the Church is recommended for all Christians. Once someone discovers the Office of Readings in the daily Liturgy of the Hours it becomes the first place, after the Sacred Scripture, to go for inspiration and food for life's journey!
These readings touch upon the deeper meaning of both of these feasts by touching the mystery of what actually occurred and what it really means. Here are a few sentences from an ancient homily given by the Bishop of Constantinople, St. Proclus, as an example:
"At Christmas we saw a weak baby, giving proof of our weakness. In today's feast, we see a perfect man, hinting at the perfect Son who proceeds from the all-perfect Father. At Christmas the King puts on the royal robe of his body; at Epiphany the very source enfolds, and, as it were, clothes the river. Come then and see new and astounding miracles: the Sun of righteousness washing in the Jordan, fire immersed in water, God sanctified by the ministry of man."
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks the beginning of what is called the public ministry of Jesus. He was thirty years old when it happened. He died His redemptive death at Golgotha when He was only thirty three years old. However, He also spent thirty redemptive years of life in what writers have sometimes called His hidden years in Nazareth's school, "growing in wisdom and stature". (Luke 2:52)
Those years were not hidden, in the sense of being unimportant. It simply means that we do not find much about them in the Gospel accounts. However, they are rich with meaning, revealing the deeper truths of our faith and the invitation to each one of us who bear the name Christian to live our lives now in a new way, by living them in Jesus Christ. Christianity is not just about being freed from - sin and its consequences, which it certainly is. But it is also about being freed for - a new way of living our real lives beginning right now and stretching into eternity.
Jesus, Perfect God and Perfect Man, the Incarnate Word, the Son of God and Son of Mary, gave the same glory to the Father when he was working with wood in the workshop of Nazareth as he would years later when he raised his friend named Lazarus from the dead. From the moment of His conception, the Son of God recapitulated (to borrow a favored word of the great Church father, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons) the entire human experience, He re-created and began humanity anew, by assuming our humanity.
During those years, in the hearth of a real, human family, the Son of God sanctified and transformed every aspect of ordinary human life. His redemptive and transforming work began in the first home of the whole human race, His mother's womb. Jesus was a Redeemer in the Womb, beginning His Incarnation as an Embryonic Person, to use the phrase from the Instruction from the Holy See entitled "On the Dignity of every Human Person". From within the Living tabernacle of the Womb of the All Holy Virgin, He began His redemptive mission.
This child of Mary's was born and heaven touched earth. We commemorated that Holy Nativity just days ago. Some of our brethren in the Eastern Church commemorated it last week. At the breast of his mother, He elevated the already holy wonder and dignity of the vocation of motherhood. In His sacred humanity he was nurtured, a sign of the beauty of the human experience of love, growth and maturation.
He was raised by a human mother and father; and parenting and family life forever took on a deeper meaning in the domestic church of the family. 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.
The word Epiphany means a manifestation, a making present, a revealing. There is no doubt that even during those so called "hidden" years the plan, purpose and redemptive implications of the entire saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were being manifested and revealed. They reveal how the ordinary becomes extraordinary when lived in communion with the Father.
The Baptism of the Lord is also called the Theophany, in Eastern Christian churches, Catholic and Orthodox. It is the manifestation of the fullness of God. Our Gospel at the Liturgy recounts the wondrous revealing of the Holy Trinity. As the Incarnate Word of the Father was immersed in the Waters, the voice of the Father is heard and the Holy Spirit descends. (Luke 3) The Trinity is revealed.
The Theophany has inspired extraordinary reflection in the Christian Tradition. Here is another excerpt from an early homily preached on the celebration of this day, explaining its spiritual meaning:
"Therefore the Lord Jesus came to baptism, and willed to have his body washed with water. Perhaps someone will say: "He who is holy, why did he wish to be baptized?" Pay attention therefore! Christ is baptized, not that he may be sanctified in the waters, but that he himself may sanctify the waters, and by his own purification may purify those streams which he touches".
For the consecration of Christ is the greater consecration of another element. 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. (St. Maximus of Turin, 423 AD)
During our celebration 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 - and was born in a manger. This Sunday, the church points to this Manifestation of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, in the river of Jordan. This is an Epiphany in the waters. This is the event where the full plan of God for His Church and the entire creation was manifested or revealed.
The Baptism of Jesus manifests the life of the Holy Trinity to the whole world and opens the door, through Jesus Christ, into a communion, a participation in the life of the Trinity, through Baptism into His Body, the Church. The waters of the Jordan are sanctified by the Son and all water is sanctified. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of the original creation, the Spirit hovers over the waters where the Son is immersed by John.
This deeper significance is the reason of the Baptism of Jesus and its baptismal connection for us is why, in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, the clergy often lead the faithful to rivers and entire rivers are blessed on this day! One of the first elements of creation - water - created by the Father through the Word - is now re-created through the Incarnate Word, and becomes the matter of the Sacrament of New Life for all men and women.
The Word Incarnate stands in the waters of the earth which was created through Him, and begins the re-creation of everything. Into these waters, through which the people of Israel were once delivered, the entire human race is now invited to follow Jesus. What was once the means of God's judgment and purification at the time of Noah, now fills the Baptismal fount where men and women are delivered from sin and made new!
The Church is given new waters for her saving and sanctifying mission. The Trinity, the Communion of Divine persons in perfect unity, is revealed today. 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." In his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus is not sanctified for He is without sin. Rather, we are now empowered to become what the tradition calls "sons (and daughters) in the Son" through our own Baptism.
The Theophany, or Baptism of the Lord, also reminds us that all of creation will be redeemed! 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 our life in a world to come.
The Feast of the Theophany, the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, celebrates the full salvation and sanctification of matter as well. 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 the effects of sin and made new! That is why in the Eastern Christian churches, Orthodox and Catholic, priests in areas close to bodies of water lead a procession to them and bless them. All waters have become holy now because the Son has been immersed in them. They are used for the new birth which comes about in Baptism.
Descending into the waters of the Jordan, Jesus, who now shares our humanity, makes that living water flow with healing mercy to provide the grace we need to be made new. His Divine Life is now mediated through the Sacraments of the Church, which is His Body, beginning with Baptism. The Word descends and begins the re-creation of the universe. This is an ongoing work which will only be complete when He returns. The public mission and ministry of Jesus began at the waters of Jordan. However, it continues through His Church, of which we become members through our Baptism into Him.
When we entered those baptismal waters, we were baptized into His Death. When we came out, we entered into His Resurrection. We appropriate and grow in that reality by living our lives now in His Church, of which we are made members. The Christian vocation, no matter what our state in life, job, or specific response to God's call, is for us to reveal the Love of the Trinity to the entire human race. We are a people on mission, called to bring all men and women to the Waters of Baptism in order to encounter the Lord. There they will be freed from sin and experience New Life in Christ. There, they will be incorporated into the Body of Christ, which is His Church.
There, joined in Him and with one another, we are called and empowered to participate in His ongoing redemptive mission until He returns to make all things new. We are invited on this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord to grasp ever more deeply the deeper meaning of being a Christian and to choose to live our lives in the Lord, by living in the heart of the Church for the sake of the world.
This column originally posted on Catholic Online. Posted with permission from the author.