Baptism of Christ

02 January 2020

Isaiah 42.1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-end

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IN THE Orthodox Church calendar, the Baptism of Christ is the central focus of Epiphany. Jesus’s baptism is the occasion of a second, and more dramatic, manifestation (epiphaneia) of his glory. Like the visit of the Magi, it foreshadows his paschal sacrifice and triumph.

John’s baptism resembled the practice of proselyte baptism for Gentile converts (the word baptizein meaning to make someone or something go down into water). In extending this practice to the Jewish people and their leaders, John was “in effect declaring that everyone stands in need of conversion, signalling their repentance and turning to God” (Anna Case-Winters, Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew).

For Jesus to receive such a baptism might seem unnecessary. Yet when John the Baptist queries this, Jesus replies: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.” The Eastern Church sees this remark as an anticipation of Jesus’s prayer to the Father: “Not what I want, but what you want” (Matthew 26.39). As Benedict XVI explains, at the Jordan — as in the garden of Gethsemane — Jesus’s “Yes” to the Father’s entire will expresses solidarity with human beings who “have incurred guilt but yearn for righteousness” (Jesus of Nazareth: From the baptism in the Jordan to the transfiguration).

Jesus is the sinless victim whose paschal sacrifice alone can cleanse sinful humanity. It is what Jesus calls the “baptism” of the Cross (Mark 10.38), which will reveal the full meaning of his baptism in the Jordan. In the words of St Cyril of Alexandria, “Christ was not baptised as one repenting but as one cleansing sins and sanctifying the waters.”

Just as John preached that Jews as well as Gentiles needed to repent, the message of the Acts of the Apostles is that Gentiles as well as Jews are now fully incorporated into the people of God. In the verses preceding our epistle, Peter is summoned by the Roman centurion Cornelius, who “was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say”.

Peter explains to Cornelius how God has worked through “the people of Israel”, but he emphasises God’s lack of “partiality”. As Beverly Roberts Gaventa observes, the “impartiality” of God is central to the preaching of the early Christians (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Acts). Yet this impartiality exists alongside the particularity of God’s election of Israel. His plan for all nations operates through a particular nation, and salvation is offered to all humanity through the work of one particular human being.

God’s election of Israel was for the blessing of the whole of humanity, and the message which began “in Galilee after the baptism that John announced” is now to spread to the ends of the earth. The manifestation of Christ’s glory at the Jordan, where Peter tells us that he was “anointed with the Holy Spirit and power”, is — like his first Epiphany, in Bethlehem — for all the nations.

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