Today is a beautiful celebration—The Theophany, when God was revealed in the Baptism of Jesus Christ in the waters of the Jordan River in ancient Palestine. The Gospel reading from the third chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew makes it clear that John the Baptist was incredibly surprised when Jesus Christ asked John to baptise Him. John said, “I need to be baptised by You, and do You come to me?” We too can be surprised. Why did Jesus Christ ask a human being—John, a remarkable human being, but still a human being—to baptise Him, the Son of God?
Jesus Christ told John: “Let it be so now; for … it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” I wondered, “What does this mean—to fulfil all righteousness?” A note in The Orthodox Study Bible explains that “Jesus [Christ] does not need purification; [but] by making the purification of humanity His own, He would wash away humanity’s sin, grant regeneration and reveal the mystery of the Holy Trinity.” That’s three major consequences of the Baptism of Jesus Christ—first, to “wash away humanity’s sin;” second, to “grant regeneration” and third, to “reveal the mystery of the Holy Trinity.” Let’s consider those three consequences of the Baptism of Jesus Christ and see what significance the Church Fathers saw in that Baptism for their lives and for our lives today.
First, how does the Baptism of Jesus Christ wash away humanity’s sins”? As St Gregory of Nysssa, the younger brother of St Basil, explains: “Jesus [Christ] enters the filthy, sinful waters of the world and when He comes out brings up and purifies the entire world with Him.” That is strong language, but it is true: there was a lot of filth and sin in the world, but Christ “purifies the entire world,” including each of us. The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church explains this righteousness by stating that as we turn away from sin Jesus Christ offers us a model of “humility, voluntary sacrifice and love.” Thus, as we lose our tendency to sin, we gain the humility and ability to love others.
Second, how does the baptism of Jesus Christ “grant us regeneration”? In the 5th century, Hilary, Archbishop of Arles, explained that, and I quote: “In Jesus Christ we behold a complete [person]. Thus in obedience to the Holy Spirit the body He assumed fulfilled in Him every sacrament of our salvation.” I puzzled over this explanation: how did the body that Christ assumed fulfil our salvation? Theodore of Mopsuestia, a founder of the Antiochian school of Biblical exegesis, explained and I quote: “This Jesus, I say, recapitulated [that is, summed up] in Himself everything that pertains to our salvation. For just as He both died and rose again, we also shall do so, in the same way. Since necessarily we were to be symbolically transferred from this present life by baptism and settled in that life which is to come, He saw to it that this baptism should be fulfilled first of all in Himself…. He thereby showed this baptism to be great and honourable, in that He Himself, first of all, truly accepted it.” In other words, precisely because Jesus Christ is “a complete person” who lived on earth and died and rose to heaven, He offers to us the same path to being complete persons and to seeing the fullness of life, both now on earth and in our future in heaven.
For me and perhaps for you, that path is not difficult to understand, but challenging to live in the present moment. A note in The Orthodox Study Bible for St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, chapter 4, verse 4, sets out how we can travel this path, and I quote: “Whereas the Son of God [Jesus Christ] is God by nature, we become sons [and daughters] of God by adoption. We cannot become members of the Godhead by nature because we are human by nature. But we do become members of His family by grace. In adoption we become everything God is, except that we do not share His nature” [end of quote]. It is important to note that the word “adoption” is from the two Latin words, ad and adoptare meaning “to choose.” As a complete person, by His Baptism Jesus Christ shows us the path and chooses us; and we can respond by choosing Him. We do need to choose to be complete persons, not just to admire the completeness of Jesus Christ, but rather to seek to be part of that completion, to be unified with Jesus Christ. And that is the secret of Orthodox Christianity—that we seek the fullness and completion of Jesus Christ in our own lives and in the Church.
Third, the baptism of Jesus Christ does indeed “reveal the mystery of the Holy Trinity.” The Gospel for today explains what happened when Jesus was baptised, and I quote: “When Jesus was baptised, He [came] up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on Him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” A note in The Orthodox Study Bible insists: “Note how the Baptism of Jesus [Christ] reveals the great mystery of The Trinity: the Father speaks; the Holy Spirit descends; the Incarnate Son is baptised…. This is the greatest and clearest public manifestation of God as Trinity in human history.” Furthermore, the outstanding theologian and 4th century Bishop of Alexandria, St Athanasius, wrote and I quote: “The [Holy] Spirit’s descent on [Jesus Christ] in the Jordan was a descent upon [each of] us, because of His bearing our body. For when the Lord, as Man, was washed in the Jordan,” continued St Athanasius, “it was we who were washed in Him and by Him. And when He received the [Holy] Spirit, it was we who by Him were made recipients of the [Holy] Spirit.” In other words, just as we learn in our lives to grow into unity with the complete person Jesus Christ, so too we can each learn to grow into unity with the Holy Trinity.
For me, the insight about the Baptism of Jesus Christ that I find most helpful comes from St Chromatius, a fifth century saint and friend of St Jerome. In his Tractate on Matthew, available in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture for the Gospel reading for today, St Chromatius wrote: “The Lord … reveals the mystery of His dispensation [that is, the mystery of this special moment in time when Jesus Christ was baptised, the Greek word is oikonomia] by saying, ‘Let it be so now; for … it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness,’ showing this [baptism] to be true righteousness, that He the Lord and Master should fulfil in Himself every sacrament of our salvation. Therefore, the Lord did not want to be baptised for His own sake but for ours, in order to fulfil all righteousness. Indeed, it is only right that whatever someone instructs another to do [something, they] should first do [it themselves]. Since the Lord and Master of the human race had come, He wanted to teach by His example what must be done for disciples to follow their Master and for servants [to follow] their Lord” [end of quote]. So be it for us today. As we understand the meaning of The Theophany, may we each learn day-by-day, prayer-by-prayer, to be disciples of Jesus Christ who follow our Master and steadily become servants of our Lord.
And so, we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.