The Baptism of Christ: Making the Waters Holy

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
Water No Words

In the beginning, the “spirit hovered over the waters” (Genesis 1:2).  But Creation “fell” with Adam and Eve.  Water lost its innate power to sanctify.  But the restoration of water – as means of restoring mankind through Baptism – was foreshadowed in the Law of Moses.  For example, Levites – sons of Aaron – were to be washed in water before being consecrated priests (Leviticus 8:6).  And they were to be bathed in water before entering the Tent of Meeting and before offering sacrifices.  “Whenever they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die.  Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting a food offering to the LORD...” (Exodus 30:20).  The prophet Ezekiel saw water flowing from the Temple – foreshadowing the Holy Spirit being sent to us from the Father after Christ’s resurrection.  “Then he brought me back to the entrance of the Temple, and there I saw water flowing out from under the Temple’s threshold toward the east, for the front of the Temple faced east.  The water flowed out toward the right side of the Temple to the south of the altar” (Ezekiel 47:1).  Christ’s baptism makes the waters holy – potent for imparting the Holy Spirit in Baptism. “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Christ’s Baptism also begins his public mission.

 

Today’s feast concludes the Christmas Season, though the afterglow of Christmastide continues through the feast of the Presentation on February 2 (forty days after Christmas).  Here I offer some reflections on the Lord’s baptism by three fifth century saints and fathers of the Church.

 

On the Lord’s Baptism, by Saint Maximus of Turin

 

The Gospel tells us that the Lord went to the Jordan River to be baptized and that he wished to consecrate himself in the river by signs from heaven.  Reason demands that this feast of the Lord’s baptism, which I think could be called the feast of his birthday, should follow soon after the Lord’s birthday, during the same season, even though many years intervened between the two events.

 

At Christmas he was born a man; today he is reborn sacramentally. Then he was born from the Virgin; today he is born in mystery. When he was born a man, his mother Mary held him close to her heart; when he is born in mystery, God the Father embraces him with his voice when he says: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased: listen to him. The mother caresses the tender baby on her lap; the Father serves his Son by his loving testimony. The mother holds the child for the Magi to adore; the Father reveals that his Son is to be worshiped by all the nations.  That is why the Lord Jesus went to the river for baptism, that is why he wanted his holy body to be washed with Jordan’s water.

 

Someone might ask, “Why would a holy man desire baptism?” Listen to the answer: Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water.

 

For when the Savior is washed all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. Christ is the first to be baptized, then, so that Christians will follow after him with confidence.

 

I understand the mystery as this. The column of fire went before the sons of Israel through the Red Sea so they could follow on their brave journey; the column went first through the waters to prepare a path for those who followed. As the apostle Paul said, what was accomplished then was the mystery of baptism. Clearly it was baptism in a certain sense when the cloud was covering the people and bringing them through the water.

 

But Christ the Lord does all these things: in the column of fire he went through the sea before the sons of Israel; so now, in the column of his body, he goes through baptism before the Christian people. At the time of the Exodus the column provided light for the people who followed; now it gives light to the hearts of believers. Then it made a firm pathway through the waters; now it strengthens the footsteps of faith in the bath of baptism. 

 

On Making the Waters Holy, by Saint Proclus of Constantinople

 

Christ appeared in the world, and, bringing beauty out of disarray, gave it luster and joy. He bore the world’s sins and crushed the world’s enemy. He sanctified the fountains of waters and enlightened the minds of men. Into the fabric of miracles he interwove ever greater miracles.  For on this day land and sea share between them the grace of the Savior, and the whole world is filled with joy.

 

Today’s feast of the Epiphany manifests even more wonders than the feast of Christmas.  On the feast of the Savior’s birth, the earth rejoiced because it bore the Lord in a manger; but on today’s feast of the Epiphany it is the sea that is glad and leaps for joy; the sea is glad because it receives the blessing of holiness in the river Jordan.  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 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.  Today every creature shouts in resounding song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is he who comes in every age, for this is not his first coming. 

 

And who is he? Tell us more clearly, I beg you, blessed David: The Lord is God and has shone upon us. David is not alone in prophesying this; the apostle Paul adds his own witness, saying: The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all men, and instructing us. Not for some men, but for all. To Jews and Greeks alike God bestows salvation through baptism, offering baptism as a common grace for all.  Come, consider this new and wonderful deluge, greater and more important than the flood of Noah’s day. Then the water of the flood destroyed the human race, but now the water of Baptism has recalled the dead to life by the power of the one who baptized. In the days of the flood the dove with an olive branch in its beak foreshadowed the fragrance of the good odor of Christ the Lord; now the Holy Spirit, coming in the likeness of a dove reveals the Lord of mercy. 

 

On the Epiphany of Christ, by Saint Peter Chrysologus

 

In the mystery of our Lord’s incarnation there were clear indications of his eternal Godhead. Yet the great events we celebrate today disclose and reveal in different ways the fact that God himself took a human body. Mortal man, enshrouded always in darkness, must not be left in ignorance, and so be deprived of what he can understand and retain only by grace.  In choosing to be born for us, God chose to be known by us. He therefore reveals himself in this way, in order that this great sacrament of his love may not be an occasion for us of great misunderstanding.

 

Today the Magi find, crying in a manger, the one they have followed as he shone in the sky. Today the Magi see clearly, in swaddling clothes, the one they have long awaited as he lay hidden among the stars.  Today the Magi gaze in deep wonder at what they see: heaven on earth, earth in heaven, man in God, God in man, one whom the whole universe cannot contain now enclosed in a tiny body. As they look, they believe and do not question, as their symbolic gifts bear witness: incense for God, gold for a king, myrrh for one who is to die.  So the Gentiles, who were the last, become the first: the faith of the Magi is the first fruits of the belief of the Gentiles.

 

Today Christ enters the Jordan to wash away the sin of the world. John himself testifies that this is why he has come: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Today a servant lays his hand on the Lord, a man lays his hand on God, John lays his hand on Christ, not to forgive but to receive forgiveness.  Today, as the psalmist prophesied: The voice of the Lord is heard above the waters. What does the voice say? This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.  Today the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters in the likeness of a dove. A dove announced to Noah that the flood had disappeared from the earth; so now a dove is to reveal that the world’s shipwreck is at an end for ever. The sign is no longer an olive-shoot of the old stock: instead, the Spirit pours out on Christ’s head the full richness of a new anointing by the Father, to fulfill what the psalmist had prophesied: Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows.

 

Today Christ works the first of his signs from heaven by turning water into wine. But water has still to be changed into the sacrament of his blood, so that Christ may offer spiritual drink from the chalice of his body to fulfill the psalmist’s prophecy: How excellent is my chalice, warming my spirit. 

 

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