The events of the Baptism of Christ are recalled every year in early January as part of the cycle of the calendar which commemorate various events and people from the life of the Christ and history of the Church. This is useful for us, as we may ponder on aspects of the faith and learn from them. Festivals show eternal realities, not least the work of God in establishing loving relationships with humanity. The whole of salvation is part of God’s eternal plan to renew and perfect the cosmos.
It is no surprise then that the Baptism of Christ is foretold, at least in part, by prophecy. Certainly we have the Baptist and Forerunner John foretold in the prophecy of Malachi (3:1) “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. “
We also read in the prophecy of Isaiah (40:3)
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert, a highway for our God. “
The preparatory work of St John before Christ’s ministry, as he preached repentance and the coming of the Messiah is the fulfilment of prophecy. These prophecies of course cover more than the prediction of single events. They give us the significance of those events. For example, the same chapter of Isaiah talks in very clear terms of Christ as the Good Shepherd so we can know what the Messiah will be like.
“See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
1He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young. ”
(Isaiah 40: 10)
Lest there be any doubt about the Incarnation being of God Himself, having described the Holy One as a shepherd, the same chapter goes on to praise Him in these terms:
The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. ” (Isaiah 40:28)
It is in Christ’s uniting of everything that is human (including the body) to Himself, that God the Eternal One enters human life as a man and makes possible the sanctification and transformation of all people and indeed the cosmos. The connection is intimate, and has been compared to an iron poker and a fire. A poker near a fire may become warm but plunged into the fire it acquires so much heat that it glows like a flame and may indeed set fire to other things. The iron and the fire are intimately connected. The poker has some of the energy of the fire in the way a human being may have the energy of God. This works only when the connection is made so that human beings may become God-like.
But how does baptism contribute to the transformation of both our lives and the cosmos? Is for example the baptism of Christ at the hands of the Forerunner the same as the baptism we have ourselves received? No! That may surprise you. Let me explain.
The Foreunner was baptising for repentance. In a sense this is the negative aspect of baptism, it is a turning away from evil. There is also however the positive aspect in that it also makes possible our striving to do good. St John says this as recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew (3:11):
“I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” (A slave might carry a king’s sandals but John the Baptist saw the gap between Himself and Christ as greater than that between slave and king.) He goes on:-
“He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” We recall that St Paul in Ephesus (Acts 19) had to point out the limitations of John’s Baptism to those who neither knew nor practised the Church’s baptism.
The key point here is that our baptism happens after Pentecost when salvation is assured and the Spirit is given to the Church; that is, to you and I. In baptism we received the Holy Spirit although Scripture is clear that we can grieve this same Spirit and indeed quench Him in our lives - as water quenches a fire. Hence the need for repentance to reactivate the gift and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Let us recall that it is the Holy Spirit who makes baptismal renewal into the likeness of God, deification, possible. Thereby we enter into the life of the Godhead and receive the energies of the life giving Trinity. The presence of God at the baptism of Christ and our own is a revelation of the blessed Trinity; the voice of the Father from heaven - which we also hear - and the Spirit revealed in the Son - with whom we also are anointed - showing that in baptism everything is made new. Matter, in this case, water, itself becomes a vehicle for the power of God, meaning that the whole cosmos can also be made anew, recreated. That is why we bless water at Theophany for use by the faithful. We are activating the transformative power of God in all creation - quite an amazing thought. What you do at home does not stay at home, however, but extends to all creation.
Christ underwent baptism for us, he participated in every stage of life and death and sanctified both humanity and the natural world. The Holy Trinity is active in all the sacraments of the Church. It is by the power of God, therefore, that we are able to bless the waters at Theophany. It is through Him that we may experience forgiveness and the blessings of the Holy Liturgy. We are all in need of all the sacraments; the cleansings and the blessings, and yet whilst He is fully human as well as fully God, it is Christ who makes those blessings possible. He invites us to participate and work with Him in the great work of blessing and indeed transforming the cosmos, starting from wherever we are which for most of us will mean our homes. From there we seek our true home which is in God.