From the Priest
This was last Sunday’s homily (Feast of the Baptism of The Lord): The writers of the Four Gospels did not believe in wasting time or ink! The account of Jesus’s infancy was completed, and now they propel us fast forward to the start of his ministry, which begins with his Baptism in the river Jordan. Luke dates this event very precisely. He reports that it took place in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, whilst Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea; Herod tetrarch of Galilee; and he gives us three other dateline trig points. All this tells us that it happened during AD 29. The New Testament writers go to great lengths to set Christian events in the context of World History of the time. This journalistic discipline, combined with the witness of the early martyrs reminds us, if we ever needed reminding, that the Christian religion is firmly based on fact.
Baptism in the Jewish tradition of the time was not quite the same as the Sacrament of Christian Baptism, although there is common ground. John’s baptism included verbal confession of sin; the washing away of that sin in the flowing or living waters of the Jordan, and the firm commitment to leave behind the sinful life. Clearly John’s ministry by the river had shaken up the entire region: Mark records that all of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem came down to see what was going on. If John’s baptism purified from sin, the why would Jesus Christ who was sinless, present himself for this act of purification?
Good question. And one that John himself asked as we have just heard: ‘It is I who need baptism from you…and yet you come to me.’ Jesus’s baptism is a puzzle until it is set within the context of his ultimate death on the cross and the Resurrection in which the power of sin and death is neutered. Jesus Christ, fully God, fully Man, loads the burden of human guilt on his shoulders, and nails it to the cross. In carrying the weight of evil, he shares the human predicament, although Himself sinless. So it is that he presents Himself to John for purification – and John gets the point, for later he points out Jesus to the crowd: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’
‘Icons’ are religious works of art; ‘icon’ meaning ‘image in Greek. The painting of these images dates right back to the earliest days of Christianity, especially in the east. Greek, Russian and Coptic churches are full of these images, which are used for devotional purposes and to explain the Christian Faith. If you google an icon of Christ’s Baptism, you will usually find the waters of the Jordan depicted as a liquid tomb, having the form of a dark cavern – a sign of Hades, Hell and the Underworld. The Orthodox Church makes a strong connection between the Baptism of Christ, and Easter. Jesus’s descent into this watery tomb that envelops him from every side is a sort of anticipation of his descending into Hell, and emerging into the Resurrection. In both the Baptism and Crucifixion, Jesus has entered into the sin of others, and shares the consequences: the metaphorical death by drowning, and the actual death in his execution on the cross. But, in his death, he destroys its power through his resurrection. From the moment of his immersion in the Jordan the waters of Christian baptism are given the power to convey immortality by Him with whom the Father is well pleased and upon whom the Holy Spirit descends. The Trinitarian God is revealed, in whose name all Baptism is given: ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’; that formula which makes us sons and daughters of God, and to whom we cry as children: ‘Abba, Father’.