12.01.2020 – Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (A)
Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. John tried to dissuade him. ‘It is I who need baptism from you’ he said ‘and yet you come to me!’ But Jesus replied, ‘Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands.’ At this, John gave in to him.
As soon as Jesus was baptised he came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice spoke from heaven, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.’
The Rite of Baptism includes a blessing of the waters of the baptismal font. This blessing brings out both the natural and the historical significance of water in God’s plan for our redemption. Water is a symbol of life and God’s gift to us in His creation. At the creation God breathed his Holy Spirit upon the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness. Water is involved in both our natural birth and in our spiritual birth to eternal life. The people of Israel were born as a nation through their passage out of slavery through the Red Sea and into the freedom of the Promised-Land through the waters of the Jordan. The blessing then recounts how Jesus Christ was baptised by John in the Jordan, and received the anointing of the Holy Spirit. At His death water and blood flowed from Christ’s side and in his resurrection He instructed His disciples to teach and baptise all nations, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The Church continues this work, and each time a child or an adult is baptised Christ unseals the fountain of baptism.
This prayer of blessing helps us to see how baptism involves a new relationship with the natural and the historical order of things. The one baptised is given the ability to see the natural world in a new light. A hardened empiricist might look somewhat puzzled at the suggestion that baptism in some sense changes our perception of nature. There is a truth in this puzzlement. Water is physically identical from the beginnings of this world to the glass of water I have just poured from a tap. The mistake the hardened empiricist makes is to reduce the significance of water to this physical identity.
Imagine two children. One at a young age learnt to swim and associates water with fun and playing. Another child almost drowned as a toddler, and is terrified at the prospect of playing in the sea. The hardened empiricist may argue that there is nothing essentially different in what the two children see, they just react in different ways. But the difference between the two children is not just explained by their different reactions. Let’s say that a third child reacts to the water like other people react to fire. We would say that this child has a faulty reaction to water. With the first two children, however, we find some truth in their reactions. This is because they both see something significant about water. Water is fun to play in, but it is also dangerous and terrifying. It will not, however, unless you are suffering from a particular allergy, burn you like fire.
For the people of Israel the waters of the Red Sea and the waters of the Jordan have a special significance. Like the young child and her first experiences of water, these encounters with water have a deep significance on Israel’s relationship with water. Other nations have their founding narratives, many of which involve our relationship with primary elements such as water. Israel’s story, however, is the story of how God enters into human history. It is the same God who created the universe, who breathed upon the primal waters, who now leads Israel through the waters of the Red Sea and across the Jordan into the Promised-Land. Water is now a powerful sign for Israel of liberation and new life, whereas the Egyptians experience the frightful power of water as God brings justice to His people.
For those who receive liberation and new life through the sacrament of baptism, water is a powerful symbol of our salvation in Jesus Christ. When Christ entered the waters of the Jordan and asked John to baptise him He changed relationship to all peoples to water. Whereas we bless the water before a baptism, Christ in His baptism blesses all water. He is the source of all holiness and He breathes his Holy Spirit upon the waters, so that we are given a new birth as children of God.
By Fr David Goodill