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The River and the Cross
Thursday 17 January 2013 Articles

I have thought a great deal about the Baptism of Christ, this week. In Children’s Liturgy I have focused on the ‘epiphany’ nature of the event. When we were Anglicans, Epiphany was a whole season from 6th January to Candlemas on 2nd February. We have the similar readings now and I am still aware of the dynamic of this time of year, which focuses on events that reveal who Jesus is.

In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy Father looks at what is being revealed about Jesus in the Baptism.

Descending in to the water, the candidates for Baptism confess their sin…What did Jesus do in this situation?…Looking at the events in the light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realised what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross…The Baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity, and the voice that calls out “This is my Beloved Son” over the waters is an anticipatory reference to the Resurrection.”

(From Jesus of Nazareth by Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI. Pages 17&18)

Just as the gifts of the Magi remind us that Christ is both King and Priest and that he has come to fulfil these roles by dying, Christ’s Baptism is both his act of obedience to the Father, a taking on of the mission that awaits him but also a fore-shadowing of the Cross and Resurrection. Both these events, these revealings, are bittersweet. They contain the wonder of the arrival of our long awaited Saviour and the salutary note that he has come to die in order to set us free.

This is one layer. I have also been aware of a different aspect to the story of the Baptism, one that I have encountered but not thought about enough before; that is the sanctification of the water by Christ.

On the Friday before the feast, the Office of Readings contained a reading from St Maximus of Turin in which the Saint says

Someone might ask, “Why would a holy man desire baptism?” Listen to the answer: Christ is baptised, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water.

For when the Saviour is washed, all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. Christ is the first to be baptised, then, so that Christians will follow after him with confidence.

This reminds me of something Alexander Schmemann wrote.

“What is important for us, however, is that the baptism water represents the matter of the Cosmos, the world as life of man. And its blessing at the beginning of the baptism rite acquires thus a truly cosmic and redemptive significance. God created the world and blessed it and gave it to man as his food and life, as means of communion with Him. The blessing of water signifies the return of redemption of matter to this initial and essential meaning. By accepting the baptism of John, Christ sanctified the water – made it the water of purification and reconciliation with God. It was then, as Christ was coming out of the water, that the Epiphany- the new and redemptive manifestation of God- took place, and the Spirit of God, who at the beginning of creation “moved upon the face of the waters,” made water- that is the world- again into what He made it at the beginning.”

What strikes me as I re-read this quote, having read the ones from the Holy Father and from St Maximus of Turin, is this. Salvation is all encompassing; it catches up not just humanity but the whole created order. It is a beautiful image of the water covering Jesus’ head and then, as he stands up, running off his hair and beard, down into the river. This act of purification touches all water, the seas and oceans, the rain and springs high up in the mountains. And all of it made ready for all baptisms.

I am also struck by the foreshadowing. Like at the Last Supper, where Christ speaks of his death, foreshadows it in the breaking of bread and therefore gives us the sacrament of the Mass so here his death and resurrection are foreshadowed and at the same time the water is sanctified for the sacrament of Baptism.

Many of these layers are contained in the reading from the Saints for last Sunday. St Gregory Nazianzen writes:

Jesus rises from the waters; the world rises with him. The heavens, like Paradise with its flaming sword, closed by Adam for himself and his descendants, are rent open. The Spirit comes to him as to an equal, bearing witness to his Godhead. A voice bears witness to him from heaven, his place of origin. The Spirit descends in bodily form like the dove that so long ago announced the ending of the flood and so gives honour to the body that is one with God.

…let us do honour to Christ’s baptism and celebrate this feast in holiness. Be cleansed entirely and continue to be cleansed. Nothing gives such pleasure to God as the conversion and salvation of men, for whom his every word and every revelation exist. He wants you to become a living force for all mankind, lights shining in the world. You are to be radiant lights as you stand beside Christ, the great light, bathed in the glory of him who is the light of heaven. You are to enjoy more and more the pure and dazzling light of the Trinity, as now you have received – though not in its fullness – a ray of its splendour, proceeding from the one God, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.”

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