Some thoughts on the baptism of Christ in the light of Gregory of Nazianzen’s baptismal sermon.
While the baptism of Christ is celebrated January 6th by most Eastern Orthodox churches in connection with Epiphany, most traditional western churches (Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Anglican) celebrate the baptism of Christ the week after Epiphany.
In the west we seem to consider the Baptism of Christ to be of smaller importance in comparison with his incarnation, death and resurrection. Nevertheless, the story of Jesus’ baptism in Jordan by John is significant, as this is how Jesus is said to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).
Now, I’ve argued before that this is to be understood in a radical sense: In Christ humankind is baptized. Any individual Christian baptism only has meaning as a declaration of the one true baptism that has already occurred with Christ in Jordan. What makes this baptism so significant is that it anticipates and culminates in Jesus’ death, which he also calls a ‘baptism’. This is the baptism that effectively fulfills all righteousness. When we celebrate the baptism of Christ we anticipate Easter.
I’m not sure that this is how the average 4th century Christians saw the issue, though Gregory of Nazianzen seems to grasp some of the significance of the baptism of Christ in his baptismal sermon, where he marvelously stated that in his baptism “Jesus rises from the waters; the world rises with him.” The baptism of Christ is truly the baptism of us all in him. Our individual baptism only repeats and confirms the truth about us, that we are already baptized, dead and resurrected (proleptically, i.e.) with Christ. Though Jesus does not need repentance, in him we are converted to God, as Barth puts it.
Of course Gregory would probably add that we only effectively get to partake in the mystery through the sacrament of baptism, which is where I would put more traditional Baptist views instead, claiming that our baptism and death with Christ is more than enough, though in our individual baptism we confess what is already true about us. Nevertheless, I find much that is good in Gregory’s great sermon:
Christ is bathed in light; let us also be bathed in light. Christ is baptized; let us also go down with him, and rise with him.
John is baptizing when Jesus draws near. Perhaps he comes to sanctify his baptizer; certainly he comes to bury sinful humanity in the waters. He comes to sanctify the Jordan for our sake and in readiness for us; he who is spirit and flesh comes to begin a new creation through the Spirit and water.
The Baptist protests; Jesus insists. Then John says: I ought to be baptized by you. He is the lamp in the presence of the sun, the voice in the presence of the Word, the friend in the presence of the Bridegroom, the greatest of all born of woman in the presence of the firstborn of all creation, the one who leapt in his mother’s womb in the presence of him who was adored in the womb, the forerunner and future forerunner in the presence of him who has already come and is to come again. I ought to be baptized by you: we should also add, “and for you”, for John is to be baptized in blood, washed clean like Peter, not only by the washing of his feet.
Jesus rises from the waters; the world rises with him. The heavens like Paradise with its flaming sword, closed by Adam for himself and his descendants, are rent open. The Spirit comes to him as to an equal, bearing witness to his Godhead. A voice bears witness to him from heaven, his place of origin. The Spirit descends in bodily form like the dove that so long ago announced the ending of the flood and so gives honor to the body that is one with God.
Today let us do honor to Christ’s baptism and celebrate this feast in holiness. Be cleansed entirely and continue to be cleansed. Nothing gives such pleasure to God as the conversion and salvation of men, for whom his every word and every revelation exist. He wants you to become a living force for all mankind, lights shining in the world. You are to be radiant lights as you stand beside Christ, the great light, bathed in the glory of him who is the light of heaven. You are to enjoy more and more the pure and dazzling light of the Trinity, as now you have received – though not in its fullness – a ray of its splendor, proceeding from the one God, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power for ever and ever.