Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Baptism of our Lord

Prayers today: When the Lord had been baptized, the heavens opened, and the Spirit came down like a dove to rest on him. Then the voice of the Father thundered: This is my beloved Son, with him I am well pleased. (Matthew 3: 16-17)

Almighty, eternal God, when the Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan, you revealed him as your own beloved Son. Keep us, your children born of water and the Spirit, faithful to our calling. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,...


Father in heaven you revealed Christ as your Son by the voice that spoke over the waters of the Jordan. May all who share in the sonship of Christ follow in his path of service to man, and reflect the glory of his kingdom even to the ends of the earth, for he is Lord for ever and ever.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330-395)

The son of two saints, Basil and Emmilia, young Gregory was raised by his older brother, St. Basil the Great, and his sister, Macrina, in modern-day Turkey. Gregory's success in his studies suggested great things were ahead for him. After becoming a professor of rhetoric, he was persuaded to devote his learning and efforts to the Church. By then married, Gregory went on to study for the priesthood and become ordained (this at a time when celibacy was not a matter of law for priests). He was elected Bishop of Nyssa (in Lower Armenia) in 372, a period of great tension over the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. Briefly arrested after being falsely accused of embezzling Church funds, Gregory was restored to his see in 378, an act met with great joy by his people. It was after the death of his beloved brother, Basil, that Gregory really came into his own. He wrote with great effectiveness against Arianism and other questionable doctrines, gaining a reputation as a defender of orthodoxy. He was sent on missions to counter other heresies and held a position of prominence at the Council of Constantinople. His fine reputation stayed with him for the remainder of his life, but over the centuries it gradually declined as the authorship of his writings became less and less certain. But, thanks to the work of scholars in the 20th century, his stature is once again appreciated. Indeed, St. Gregory of Nyssa is seen not simply as a pillar of orthodoxy but as one of the great contributors to the mystical tradition in Christian spirituality and to monasticism itself.

Orthodoxy is a word that raises red flags in our minds. It connotes rigid attitudes that make no room for honest differences of opinion. But it might just as well suggest something else: faith that has settled deep in one’s bones. Gregory’s faith was like that. So deeply imbedded was his faith in Jesus that he knew the divinity that Arianism denied. When we resist something offered as truth without knowing exactly why, it may be because our faith has settled in our bones.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke (3:15-16.21-22

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, I baptise you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. When all the people were being baptised, Jesus was baptised too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.

Christ’s Baptism
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

The liturgical season of Christmas ends with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. It also begins the Ordinary Time of the Liturgical Year during which we contemplate our Lord’s public ministry and teaching. We can tend, though, to celebrate our Lord’s Baptism in a fairly routine way, and fail to see the biblical richness of this event. Let us remember what the baptism proclaimed and administered by John signified. John had been accepted as a prophet and his prophetic message was, repent, for the Lord is coming. Prepare to receive the Messiah God is sending! The baptism was a ceremony in which the repentant sinner acknowledged before God and his appointed prophet that he was a sinner, and asked his pardon. The pouring of the water symbolized the forgiveness which the sinner trusted he was being granted. People from various classes - tax collectors, soldiers, prostitutes and numerous others - came to hear the word of God, repent of their sins and receive John’s baptism of water. But then, quietly and without any fanfare, from the midst of this throng of sinners stepped forward another to be baptized - one so astonishingly holy that the demonic world had already marked him out with the utmost seriousness. Soon after, Satan would approach him formally to negotiate and to tempt. But here at the baptism, Jesus acts as would any one of the great crowd of sinners. Perhaps something of a parallel might be one of great crusading evangelical sessions of Billy Graham. His rousing address culminates in an invitation to repent, to convert, to make a new beginning. Those who wish to do this are asked step forward, to come to the front and by this very action to declare publicly their intent to take the path of goodness of life and obedience to God’s commands. There is a pause. Silence ensues, and one by one from various parts of the great theatre people rise and step forward. In doing this, they are acknowledging their sinfulness and their intention to begin a new path. Many come forward, and the numbers grow. They are all sinners, and they wish to do better. So too at John’s baptism the crowds come - but here one comes forward who is the all-holy Son of God.

What is Jesus doing and saying? He is not saying that he is a sinner, for he is all-holy. He is not presenting himself as one asking God for pardon. We read in the Gospel that John himself was profoundly nonplussed at having Jesus before him for baptism. He hesitates in a way he never hesitated with anyone else. He himself, he said to Jesus, was the sinner, and if anything it is Jesus who ought be baptizing him. Our Lord did not deny it - but he insisted, saying that it was fitting before God that his baptism proceed. Our Lord was taking part with sinful humanity. He was identifying with every man and woman, even the least. It was a symbolic step that in effect linked the beginning of our Lord’s work to its culmination both on the cross, and at the end of time at the Judgment. In the Gospel of St Matthew, our Lord tells his hearers that at the Judgment he will say to each: whatever you did to the least of these brothers of mine you did to me. Our Lord at the end will proclaim his union with each and all of his brothers, including the least, and here at his baptism we have the first step in this public proclamation. At his baptism our Lord was acting as one with all his sinful brothers, including the least. As their brother, their leader and their representative, he stepped forward for the baptism of John. Moreover, in going down into the water, he was prefiguring his descent into the waters of death at Calvary. Our Lord knew that his work, as the Suffering Servant of Yahweh, would be to bear the sins of his brothers and to expiate for them. As he would express it to his own disciples, it would be the great baptism of his life. Can you be baptized with the baptism with which I must be baptized? he asked James and John, when they petitioned for first places in his kingdom. I have a baptism, he said to them on another occasion, and how wrought I am till it is over! The baptism of Jesus Christ is an event in the Scriptures which is full of meaning, and we ought not let the few verses in which it is described be passed over without our relishing that meaning in our hearts.

And so it is that “as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:15-16.21-22). These words of God are plainly unique in the Scriptures and they reveal the uniqueness of the One to whom they refer. The holy Trinity bursts upon the scene of our redemption and Christ commences his redemptive ministry. He will bear on his shoulders the sins of mankind, expiate for them, and baptize his brothers with the Holy Spirit. The gates of heaven will be opened for all of us, and holiness will be gift of God.

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