Baptism of the Lord
BAPTISM OF THE LORD
In both the biblical narrative and early post-biblical period the baptism of Jesus is a major mystery, worthy
to be included in the Creed. Jesus baptism is the original baptism, the icon of Christian salvation, the source of Christian baptism and cosmic redemption.
New Testament. In spite of the small scandal that Jesus' baptism must have created—what was the Sinless One doing having himself baptized?—it belonged to the earliest tradition, is recorded in all four gospels (Mt 3:13; Mk 1:9; Lk 3:21–22, Jn 1:29–34), and belongs undoubtedly to the events of the historical Jesus. In Mark it is the beginning of the gospel, and Luke has Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth at the start of his ministry recalling his anointing with the Spirit at the Jordan. In the very short summary of the good news, Peter includes Jesus' baptism (Acts 1:22). In identifying who Jesus is, the biblical witness moves back from the resurrection (Rom 1:3–4), to the baptism of Jesus, to annunciation (Lk 1:26–38), to pre-existence (Jn 1:1). The Jordan event, therefore, is an important stage in this backward development in identifying Jesus.
Matthew and Luke, but above all Mark, arrange the ensemble of Christ's life according to the liturgical cycle of the year, beginning with the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. John followed not the Jewish liturgical calendar, but the Jewish legal calendar, and therefore the baptism of Jesus, which began the liturgical year, came immediately after Easter. In both the Synoptics and John the baptism of Jesus opened the liturgical year. Both orthodox and heterodox Christians began the liturgical year at the Jordan.
Patristic Writings. The regula fidei of Ignatius of Antioch in Eph. 18.2 and Smyrn. 1.1–2 witness to the centrality of Jesus' baptism, which was the dominant model for Christian baptism. At the very earliest stage there was no evidence of the death and resurrection as a dominant model in the theology of Christian baptism, as in Rom 6:4. After Rom 6:4 appeared in Origen's theology of baptism at the beginning of the 3d century, it disappeared from that theology until almost the end of the 4th century.
The baptism of Jesus was an essential article in the early Armenian and Syriac Creeds. In the Syrian tradition Adam and Christ are fused, so the baptism of Jesus takes place on the first day of creation. The later Syrian tradition saw the baptism of Jesus as among the primary truths taught to catechumens. Whether citing the Creeds used in the Syrian baptismal rite, the eucharistic liturgy, or the Prayer of the Hours, the baptism of Jesus is a consistent and constitutive element, indicating that it is the primary, creative, normative manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
The earliest post-biblical witness turned to the baptism of Jesus as a way of speaking about the divine origins of Jesus. But adoptionism, holding that Jesus received his divine sonship and became the Anointed One at his baptism, brought the Jordan event into ill repute. Therefore, the baptism of Jesus as a way of identifying Jesus did not survive the early Christological controversies. The Arians used Jesus' need for baptism to support their Christology. Heterodox Christologies called the divinity of Christ into question and aided in the eclipse of the baptism of Jesus as theologically primary and normative.
Hilary of Poitiers held that the baptism of Jesus contained the "secret order" of the plan of salvation, namely, through the opening of the heavens, the visible descent of the Spirit, the Father's word attesting Christ's divine sonship one learns that the baptism of Jesus is the icon of salvation. The baptism of Jesus is both the order and image of our baptism, which has cosmic implications.
In Ephrem the Jordan event establishes the principle of identity, the Holy Spirit, as the finger of God, identifies who Jesus is. In Justin Martyr both the Spirit and the voice of the Father identifies Jesus. In the Teaching of St. Gregory the mutual knowing and mutual showing of Father, Son and Holy Spirit constitute the first full revelation of Jesus' identity as trinitarian communion. At the Jordan the Spirit comes down on the Son that he might reveal salvation to all, and teach believers how to attain the Father. Philoxenus of Mabbug sees the Jordan event as the place where one is "born of baptism, that is, of the Trinity." Those who imitate Jesus' baptism embrace the whole human/divine spectrum. Such communion in the Jordan event restores one's true, integral humanity ("everyone not born of it is not reckoned a man") at one end of the spectrum. At the other end of the spectrum, communion in the mystery places one on the road to "return" to the Trinity, the source, the beginning and goal of the Christian life.
The baptism of Jesus has strong ascetic overtones, especially for a life of poverty. Philoxenus exhorts "Observe the freedom in which Jesus went forth, and do thou thyself also go forth like him," and in the waters of baptism "put on freedom." Jesus was baptized in the Jordan and immediately took his baptism and gave it to us: his baptism is his, and his baptism is ours. Beyond this the seed of resurrection is planted in the waters of Jesus' baptism which is our baptism. In Ephrem and Jacob of Serugh, Christ went down into the waters of baptism to deposit there his robe of glory and Christians go down into the same waters to take up the same robe, the beginning of Christian resurrection. Theodore of Mopsuestia writes: "Know that you are baptized in the same baptism as that in which Christ our Lord in the flesh was baptized." For Philoxenus the Jordan event dominates the central two of the three stages in the history of salvation:1) from birth of Jesus to baptism; 2) from baptism to the Cross; and 3) the Cross itself. Both Ignatius of Antioch and John of Apamea range the Jordan event among the four major mysteries of Jesus: Incarnation, baptism, death, and resurrection. John of Apamea noted that Jesus began to teach only after the witness of the Father and the Spirit. Philoxenus taught that the Jordan is "the beginning of the new order of the Spirit." Ephrem remarks that "many were baptized on that day, but the Spirit descended and rested only on One," and this was for the sake of Christian baptism and the beginning of the contemplative dimension of the Christian life.
There is a cosmic dimension to Jesus' baptism. At the Genesis moment the Spirit moves over the waters transforming chaos into cosmos, setting out the order of creatures. When Adam sinned the Spirit left him, but in the Jordan event all history and creation is renewed in power, according to Philoxenus. The baptism of Jesus is the inauguration of the new divine world, the first step in the eschatological consummation, where "mystically God [becomes] in all and all in God." Or again: "The return of all to God, that gathering up and the making new, that everything might be in him and he in all: these mysteries commenced at [Jesus'] baptism."
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Liturgical Feast. The liturgical celebration of the Baptism of Jesus was originally associated with the feast of the Epiphany, whose origins are in the East. Epiphany, observed on January 6, commemorated the appearance of Christ as Savior and the manifestation of God's glory to humankind. Local churches placed different emphases on various themes of manifestation and appearance: not only the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, but also the birth at Bethlehem with the visit of the Magi, the wedding feast at Cana, and others. The Epiphany feast was gradually adopted in the West beginning in Gaul, Northern Italy, and North Africa during the mid-4th century. The new context of the eastern feast in the West led to a reinterpretation of its central themes. The eastern Epiphany on January 6 may have been adopted in Rome during the pontificate of Damasus (366–84). The Roman church adapted the new feast in light of its December 25 celebration of the Nativity, leading to an accentuation of the theme of the visit of the Magi to differentiate it from the December 25 feast. Thus, the commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord was attenuated, though this theme remained viable. After the 8th century in the West, the feast of the Epiphany acquired an octave day (January 13), which soon absorbed the theme of the Baptism of the Lord, particularly in the offices. In the 18th century this octave day of Epiphany came to develop a distinct status as a commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord in certain local churches, primarily in France. This feast was adopted for universal celebration in the Roman Calendar in 1960 and fixed on January 13. The reform of the liturgical calendar in 1969 recovered the feast's association to Epiphany when it reckoned the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord on "Sunday falling after 6 January" (General Norms of the Liturgical Year [GNLY], no. 38), closing the Christmas cycle. In the East, the Baptism of the Lord remains the central theme of Epiphany (Theophany) to the present.
Bibliography: k. mcdonnell, The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation (Collegeville 1996); "Jesus' Baptism in the Jordan," Theological Studies 56 (1995) 209–36. d. a. bertrand, Le Baptême de Jésus (Tübingen 1973). s. brock, "Baptismal Themes in the Writings of Jacob of Serugh," Symposium Syriacum 1976 (Rome 1978) 325–47. d. vigne, Christ au Jordain (Paris 1992). g. winkler, "A Remarkable Shift in the 4th-Century Creeds," Studia Patristica 17, pt. 3 (1982) 1396–401. a. grillmeier, "Die Taufe Christi und die Taufe der Christen," Fides Sacramenti: Sacramentum Fidei (Assen 1981) 139–42.
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