Today we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the beginning of His ministry as the Messiah—the Christ, the Anointed One. Whether we identify Jesus by the Hebrew word for “Messiah” or the Greek word for “Christ” He is the Second Person of the Trinity who manifests Himself, who presents Himself, both to Jews and to Non-Jews, in first century Palestine and in all the ages to come. St John the Baptist was quite surprised when Jesus Christ came to him by the Jordan River and asked to be baptised. St John knew that Jesus was the Messiah, even if at that time St. John did not fully understand how the Messiah’s work was to be accomplished on earth. St John said to Jesus Christ, “I have need to be baptised by You, and do you come to me?”
Jesus Christ told St John, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” What does that phrase “to fulfill all righteousness” mean? To be righteous is to be upright, to be morally good; but God the Father is pointing out something more than the reality that Jesus Christ is morally good. One Biblical commentator suggests: “The baptism indicated that [Jesus Christ] was consecrated to God and officially approved by Him, as especially shown in the descent of the Holy Spirit and in the words of the Father” that are audibly heard In the Gospel of St Matthew, chapter 2, verse 17, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
The fourth Gospel, the Gospel of St John the Evangelist, gives the testimony of St John the Baptist in chapter 1, verse 32 when St John the Baptist tells the people, “I have seen the [Holy] Spirit, descending as a dove out of heaven, and [the dove] remained upon Him.” Clearly, St John the Baptist has recovered from the initial surprise that Jesus Christ wanted to be baptised by him. On reflection, St John the Baptist was now able to state in the Gospel of St John, chapter 1, verse 34, “I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
Thus far in trying to understand the meaning of The Theophany, the meaning of the Baptism of Jesus Christ, only Biblical evidence has been given. Let us consider now what the Church Fathers wrote and preached about this important event. St Athanasius, a fourth century Bishop of Alexandria, wrote in his First Discourse against the Arians, Chapter XII (47): “The [Holy] Spirit’s descent on [Jesus Christ] in the Jordan was a descent upon us, because of His bearing our body. For when the Lord, as Man, was washed in the Jordan, 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 Spirit.” To me, and perhaps to you, that’s rather surprising—when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago that event made it possible for the same Holy Spirit to descend on us at our baptisms. That insight is from one of the great theologians of the Early Church, St. Athanasius, who fought hard to define the Nice Creed and the nature of the Holy Trinity.
Furthermore, another great theologian and Early Church Father, St. John Chrysostom, has asked: “Why do you marvel if [Jesus Christ] vouchsafed to be baptised? For the amazement lay in [the] one thing, that being God, He would be made man; but the rest after this all follows . . . Why were the heavens opened [and the dove appeared]? To inform you that at your baptism this is done also, God [is] calling you to your country on high.” So St John Chrysostom is offering us the same profound insight as St Athanasius: When Jesus Christ received the Holy Spirit, this made it possible for each of us to receive the Holy Spirit.
For me, two key insights come out of this reflection on the baptism of Jesus Christ. First, there is here in the Theophany an important working out of the Incarnation. Once Christ became a human being on earth, it was entirely appropriate that He should be baptised. Second, the Church Fathers look ahead in time just as much as they look back in time. I had not realized that before preparing this sermon. In other words, the Tradition of the Church based upon both the Bible and the lives and writings of the Church Fathers looks to the future and to our lives just as much as to the past. The Church Fathers care about us. They want us to understand how past events, such as the baptism of Jesus Christ, have an impact upon us now in the present moment.
I close with the words of another fourth century Church Father, St Gregory of Nazianzus. St Gregory calls us into a deeper faith in Christ with these few words from his Oration on the Holy Lights, Epiphany 381, 10-16 [and I quote]: “Christ is illumined, let us shine forth with Him. Christ is baptised, let us descend with Him that we may also ascend with Him. . . .” In other words, when we go down into the water of baptism with Jesus Christ, we also come up with Him. We join Christ in His Resurrection and Ascension, which can guide each of our lives into our own personal understanding and participation in the Glory of God.
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
Father Emmanuel Kahn