Today is yet another very special day on the Church calendar. Officially it’s the day set aside to remember the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, an event that clearly was of far greater significance than we generally grant to it. The Gospel of Mark, widely thought to have been the first of the 4 Gospels to have been written, does not even have a birth narrative or any mention of the known events from Jesus’ childhood. It starts right out with the words, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” immediately moving on to John the Baptist as a messenger preparing the way, and then to the Baptism of Jesus by John. For Mark, this was the beginning of the Gospel.
Matthew gives us a more complete account of the baptism, with details that the other Gospels omit. The most important of these is the explanation for why Jesus chose to be baptized by John. In our reading today from Acts, we find Paul explaining to the Ephesians the difference between John’s baptism for repentance and the baptism of Jesus that is Trinitarian and therefore includes the Holy Spirit. We know that Jesus, as the perfect God-Man, had nothing from which He needed to repent. But in Matthew we read that when John the Baptist asked Jesus, “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?”, Jesus responds, “Let it be so now, for so it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (see Mt. 3:13-15). It was then that the voice from heaven was heard, declaring Jesus to be the Son of God.
The baptism and the voice from heaven were not minor events in the earthly life of Jesus. Even the heavenly voice is included in 3 of the 4 Gospels. It’s important to note that the voice did not say, “This day have I begotten You,” as is sometimes said. The voice is uniformly reported to have said essentially the same thing: “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well-pleased.” And it seems perfectly clear that the voice was not for the benefit of Jesus Himself, but for John the Baptist and any others standing by who may have heard and understood it. It was a witness to Who Jesus really was.
Jesus was not changed by His baptism; rather He was affirmed by it. He did not become God’s Son, but He was declared already to have been so. To suggest anything else is to veer into one of the various Christological heresies against which the early Church Fathers had to fight so valiantly in order to preserve the true orthodox faith. Jesus is eternally the Son of God, yet He took on human flesh, becoming incarnate as the Servant Savior of the world. It was as this humble Servant that Jesus fulfilled all righteousness by being baptized by John.
Notice again that the Baptism of Jesus was a Trinitarian event involving all three Persons of the Godhead: God the Son was being baptized, God the Father spoke from heaven affirming His sonship, and God the Holy Spirit descended on Him as a confirming sign that had been foretold to John the Baptist. Seeing this enables us to understand why in the Great Commission Jesus commanded that we make disciples and baptize them “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And it also explains why in the New Testament itself, as in today’s reading from Acts, anyone whose baptism had not been done in the name of the Trinity had to have it repeated.
The most important thing that we take away from all this is that our Baptism as Christians is inextricably linked to the Baptism of Jesus. For even though He was baptized by John, the presence of the entire Holy Trinity raised the Baptism of Jesus to a level not experienced by anyone else who was ever baptized by John. Then we, in turn through our baptism, become joined in the fullness of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We’re baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, as Paul teaches us in Romans 6, and in our baptism we are one with Him in His.
John the evangelist expands on this in his first letter, where he asks, “Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” Then he continues by affirming that “This is the One who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement” (I Jn. 5:5-8). In these few words John is teaching us that the witness of the Holy Spirit, which is always true, is confirmed by the water of Baptism, ours and His, and by His shed Blood which we share in the Eucharist. Ours is a sacramental faith that unites us with Christ through these two pillars of His finished work on our behalf.
There’s also another reason why today is a special Sunday on the Church calendar. Yesterday was the Feast of the Epiphany, one of the Principal Feasts of the year. Since the day fell on a Saturday this year and this is a year when last Sunday was the only Sunday in Christmastide, many churches are celebrating Epiphany today. Originally January 6 was called the Theophany, the appearing of God, and it celebrated both the birth of Christ as well as His baptism. It was not until as late as the early 5th century that Christmas was separated from January 6 and given its own date, December 25, while at about the same time the appearing of the Wise Men was added to January 6 and the word Epiphany replaced the word Theophany.
Now you may think that an Epiphany is something you have rather than a Feast you observe. Both are true, though the Greek word that lies behind our English word means an “appearance” or a “coming” of someone or something, and was never used in the modern sense of some revelatory thought or insight. When we think of Epiphany as celebrating an appearance or a coming, we think primarily and properly of the appearing of the Wise Men who had followed the star to Bethlehem. But in the broader sense there are at least four “comings” that we should celebrate in Epiphany:
- the coming of Jesus,
- the coming of the “Wise Men,”
- the “coming out” of the Lamb of God at the Jordan, and
- the coming of redemption to the Gentiles.
Now we’re nearing the end of our celebratory seasons when, throughout Advent, we looked forward to the coming of Jesus, throughout the 12 days of Christmas we celebrated the fact that He came, and throughout Epiphany we celebrate His appearing as Savior of the world. We include the Baptism of Jesus as a “coming” because in a deeply spiritual sense it was His “coming out” party at the age of 30, an age that seems to us to be fairly well into young adulthood but that in Biblical times was the official age of a Jewish boy’s emancipation from parental control. The Baptism marked the beginning of Jesus’ all too brief public ministry, by which He gave us the perfect example of how to live in humility, in ministry and in expectancy. He showed us again and again what it means to “fulfill all righteousness.” And this was the moment for John the Baptist to proclaim Jesus as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.
Then there’s the coming of the Wise Men, the significance of which goes far beyond the bare fact of their making a long and arduous journey from the East, following their star and finding the incarnate God. It goes beyond the offering of their richly symbolic gifts: gold for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, frankincense for the Holy and Righteous Savior, and myrrh for the Suffering Servant and His burial. It also has to do with the fourth of the “comings” that I mentioned: the coming of redemption to the Gentiles. Jesus came as a Jew among Jews. He went into the temple in Jerusalem and the synagogues in Galilee to worship and to teach, places that were His spiritual homes during His Incarnation, another way that He fulfilled all righteousness. He sent out His disciples to preach and to heal, telling them: “go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-7).
But later, when Gentiles came seeking Jesus and asked Philip to tell Him of their inquiry, Jesus recognized this as a moment of monumental importance, saying for the first time, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). It would seem that all that had been implied by the visit of the Wise Men to Bethlehem was now fulfilled more than 30 years later. It was then that Jesus recognized that His hour had come and that the hour included the extension of the Gospel to the Gentiles. But He also knew what that hour would cost Him. And to what end? It was for you and for me, for us and our salvation.
I want to conclude by sharing the words of an anthem by Ron Nelson that became the title of a Chicago Master Singers Christmas cd. Its message is timeless. It fits Christmas perfectly; but it also, and perhaps above all, is the message of Epiphany. In one anthem we have 3 of the 4 “comings” that Epiphany represents: the Incarnation, the Wise Men and the redemption of the Gentiles. Listen to this text:
Born in a stable, He came here for me.
Born of a virgin, He came here for me.
God’s only Son, come to set the world free
Born of God’s love, and He came here for me.
Savior of the world, I praise Thee,
Jesus, Lamb of God, I pray to Thee.
Hear me as I praise Thy birth.
Bend down Thine ear and hear my prayer.
Over the stable a star shone so bright,
Guiding three wise men who rode through the night.
He was called baby Jesus, He came here for me.
Born to this world, then He died here for me.
What’s truly special about this text is that it makes everything completely personal. “He came here for me,” and not only that, but “then He died here for me.” This is the Epiphany. It’s His Epiphany, but it also is ours as we identify with Him. May we use these weeks to hold in the forefront of our minds what it truly might mean to bring Christmas and Epiphany back together again, as they were in the early Church: to recognize what they mean, not just in the sense of the Incarnation and the appearing of Jesus, but even more by what they mean to you personally: to remember that He came here and died here for you.
Hold this in your mind, and hold Him in your heart.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen