Cleaving the Darkness
Baptism of the Lord (C) | Fr Aidan Nichols draws on the teaching of the Fathers of the Church to explain that the paradox of the Lord’s Baptism, like the Cross, reveals the extent of God’s love for mankind.
For early Christians, the thought that their Lord had himself undergone baptism was disturbing, embarrassing and even scandalous. Could the Immaculate Lamb, the altogether holy Jesus, really have submitted to an act of ritual purification? Could he have admitted by implication that he too was part of unclean, guilty, sinful, humankind? It says a great deal for their honesty that they did not attempt a cover-up, but left this seemingly controversial episode as it stood in the Gospel tradition.
But soon enough, when this event could be better contextualized in the wider whole of the Church’s developed faith about Jesus, Christians came to glory in the paradox of the Baptism of Christ: the moment when the Sinless One came to a sinner to be washed. They gloried in it because they saw it as an expression, in the life of Jesus, of the stooping down of God in loving-kindness to man, his condescension to the level of this world. The way they gloried in the paradox was by stressing at one and the same time the humiliation it involved for the Saviour and also his undiminished Godhead.
Let me give you three brief testimonies from the Fathers as found in the Roman Office of Readings. St Proclus of Constantinople: ‘Come then and see new and overwhelming miracles: the sun of righteousness bathing in Jordan, the fire immersed in water, and God being sanctified by human ministry’. St Hippolytus: ‘He who is present everywhere and is absent nowhere, incomprehensible to the Angels and withdrawn from the gaze of man, has come to baptism as was his good pleasure… Could anything be more wonderful? The Source without limits that engenders life for all mankind and is beyond all understanding is covered by the poor waters of this world’. St Gregory Nazianzen: ‘”I have need to be baptized by you’, says the lamp to the Sun, the voice to the Word, the friend to the Bridegroom; he that is above all those who are born of women to him who is the First-born of every creature; he that leaped in the womb to him who was adored in the womb; he who was and is the forerunner to him who was and is to be manifested’.
In wonderful language, these Fathers register the paradox of how it is the Infinite in human form who comes to John and undergoes at his hands a rite of cleansing. The obvious question is, Why? What is the rationale for this paradoxical act? We look back from the vantage point of the Paschal Mystery, of Eastertide, and we can see why. The Cross and Resurrection show how the generosity of God is total in his self-giving; it went to the lengths of the Cross and the descent into Hell. That is how the apostolic letters can re-define God in terms of love. But if analogy from our side is worth anything at all, it is, surely, characteristic of love – above all, of perfect love – that it does not hesitate before risk. When it comes to the aid of the beloved, it does not wait to see whether it might be misunderstood or compromised. It cares not a fig for these things. It makes itself vulnerable and if necessary accepts the hurt.
At his Baptism, the Saviour chooses to be with us where we are, to enter into solidarity with us, sinners as we are. In so doing, he laid himself open to the malicious tongue, the wagging finger. What, in this perspective, makes the Baptism great as a festival of the Church is that in this way it is the preamble of the Crucifixion. The whole destiny of Jesus is contained within it. It is the culmination of Christmastide because it is the source of the impetus that will carry us on to Easter.
This is what the Byzantine icons tell us. Christ goes down into the Jordan as on Calvary he will sink into the chaos waters of death. The river is dark with the murk of evil, but the shimmering gold which surrounds the figure of Christ cleaves it like a sword. It is the overture of his Sacrifice when on the Cross he will enter the darkness again and this time transform it into the radiance of the Resurrection light, offered to us all as joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the mosaic in the Arian baptistery in Ravenna.