Baptism of Christ & of Christians
Baptism of Christ & of Christians
The glorious Feast of Theophany is celebrated every year on January 6th. It centers on the event of the Lord’s baptism in the Jordan River. It is an occasion for us to reflect on the meaning of not only Jesus’ baptism but our own baptism as well. Bishop Theophilos of Campania (1749-1795) wrote a short treatise about this and I share much of that and more today.
Let us start with Jesus’ Baptism. If Jesus Christ is perfect God and perfect man, why was He baptized? In order to reveal truth, to show the way, and sanctify the waters and through the waters the whole of creation. We’ll cover the first two.
Reveal Truth- that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ for “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him” (Mt.3:16); that Jesus is the Son of God the Father, “a voice from heaven said, “This is My Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (v.17). Jesus said later, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by Me” (John 14:6).
Show the Way- Jesus became an example for humans to follow. Jesus submitted to baptism in order to teach us how we should behave in order to attract the grace of the Holy Spirit. The omnipotent and all-powerful eternal Word and Son of God takes the form of servant submits Himself to His own servant. He who was without sin, submits to baptism for the cleansing of sin. This is all summed up in one word—humility.
Jesus shows us the way to regeneration. After His own baptism, He went immediately into the desert and fasted 40 days and nights. Jesus was also tempted by the devil and conquered him. Thus, Jesus teaches us that we cannot undergo the temptations of the devil without fasting, and both of these are based on the grace of the Holy Spirit which we receive at our baptism. Furthermore, when Jesus was baptized, the heavens were opened (Mt.3:16) to show that every time a human person is baptized, the heavens are opened. And this way to heaven remains open if we keep our baptism undefiled.
John the Baptist hesitated to baptize Jesus because he knew Jesus was greater than himself. 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” (Mt.3:15). Thus, Jesus demonstrates by example that we also must fulfill righteousness, in other words, we must follow Divine Law. This is why Jesus also submitted to circumcision, the Sabbaths and feasts, to show that He was not an opponent of the Law. For He said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” (Mt.5:17).
Next, let’s discuss Christian Baptism, our own baptism We Christians are baptized because Jesus ordered His disciples to do so. After His resurrection, Jesus told them, 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Mt.28:19-20). The first and primary teaching is to reject the deception of idolatry which is the worship of creation instead of the Creator, for God said to Moses “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). This is clearly evident in our own day as more people turn away from faith in God towards faith in humanity. What is the result? Endless perversions and redefinitions of human identity.
Another hot topic today is equality. But we forget that God reaffirmed the equality of all human beings in Christian baptism because it is necessary and done the same for all people: kings and subjects, rich and poor, men and women. The grace that God bestows in baptism is the same for everyone.
In Orthodox Christian baptism submersion and emersion occur three times. We know this symbolizes the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What we may not know is that it also symbolizes Christ’s three-day burial. In the early Church, some were doing this only once instead of three times. This was considered inappropriate and contrary to the Lord’s teaching such that Canon 49 of the Holy Apostles specifically forbade the practice and imposed strict penances for violating the triple standard.
Several pre-figurations or types of baptism appear in the Old Testament. We heard about several of them in the Royal Hours readings on Friday and the Vespers last night. One of the most famous is Moses and the Israelites passing through the Red Sea as they fled from the Pharaoh’s Egyptian army (Exodus 14). We remember well that the Israelites were saved by God in the midst of the waters. What we may forget is that the Egyptian army perished in the same waters. Something similar takes place in our own baptism. It saves those who believe but it condemns those who do not believe. This is why we are obliged to continuously cultivate our faith and never defy our own baptism, so that we too may not perish in the waters of unbelief.
Christian baptism only occurs once. That’s what we confess in the Creed, “I believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” But why? Because Christ was buried and rose from the dead only once. Again, the early Church had to deal with people who sought and practice multiple baptisms because they sinned after their previous baptism.
The Apostle Paul addressed when he said, 4 For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
Instead of rebaptism, Orthodox Christianity practices the Sacrament of Tears, what we call the Mystery of Penance or Confession. Sadly, few of us partake of it regularly or at all.
In his primary teaching about baptism, the Apostle Paul said, 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life… 11 Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:4,11). Thus, baptism is a paradigm of putting the devil and sin to death, but one transposing us from the earthly to the heavenly, from death to life, reigning with Christ forever. That is why Clement of Alexandria says, “those who are baptized are illumined; and those who are illumined are adopted as sons; and those who are adopted as sons become perfect; and those who become perfected become immortal.” Therefore, we see that this transposition is progressive, not instantaneous.
However, as we close today, if you want to know the instantaneous way to sanctification and perfection, I share the miraculous example of the power of baptism. There are several saints in our tradition who carry the name Porphyrios. Two of them were mimes or actors. One lived during the reign of Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate in the late fourth century (Sept.15) and the other during the reign of Emperor Aurelian in the late third century (Nov.4). Both actors were trying to be funny by mocking Christian baptism in their play or skit. They had a font, they donned the robes, they even had other actors portraying bishops and priests. But these two were the ones being baptized. After being submersed three times in the name of the Trinity, both were suddenly wounded by love for Christ and the openly and truly confessed Him as the true God. The spectators and other actors thought it was part of the comedy routine, but both insisted that they indeed were now followers of Christ. Because of their new-found faith, they were both tortured and martyred for Christ.
My brothers and sisters, these two Porphyrioi mocked baptism but afterwards became saints. Let us who take our own baptism or that of our children seriously, not make light of it afterwards by turning away from the continuing life of baptism in the Church.