And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, the First Sunday after Epiphany, is the day on which we commemorate the Baptism of Christ. It’s one of the four feast days of the liturgical year on which it is particularly appropriate for people to be baptized. So, even though we don’t have anyone to baptize today, it is still the observance of the Baptism of our Lord nonetheless, and thus it provides us with a good occasion to refresh ourselves about what baptism is and why it was fitting that Christ was baptized himself.
The season of Epiphany is about the manifestation of Christ -- specifically to the Gentiles. The Feast of the Epiphany this past Wednesday was concerned with the arrival of the Magi from far off in the east to worship the child who was born King of the Jews. As Gentiles, they represent the pioneers of all the rest of us who are also Gentiles and who have been drawn into the Light of Christ. But the manifestation of who Christ is, in the divine sense, begins from within Israel, the chosen people of God -- it is a manifestation to his own people, the Jews, as well. As St. Peter says in our Epistle today, “the word” of this manifestation “was proclaimed throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached.” So what is manifested today is that the promises of God given to the Jews are now fulfilled in Christ. And this is what we witness today in the Baptism of our Lord. We witness the transition from anticipation to culmination; from outward form to inward reality; from a baptism with water to a baptism with the Holy Spirit.
We hear in our Gospel reading that John the Baptist was already baptizing people in the wilderness before Jesus came up from Nazareth to be baptized himself. The form, the ritual, of baptism was already in place. Just like all the other forms and rituals of the Old Covenant that were being performed in the temple and throughout the synagogues of Israel. However, though instituted by God himself in the Law, these forms pale in comparison to what is about to be revealed. John the Baptist sums it up pretty well himself when he says that “after me comes he who is mightier than I.” It’s a statement not just about how John the Baptist compares to Jesus, but about how the entire ministry that John the Baptist exercised -- indeed, the whole structure of the Old Covenant itself -- compares to the ministry of the Son of God who is about to be revealed.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read that “the law was but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Hebrews 10:1). The Law here includes the entirety of the Old Covenant -- again, it includes all the forms and rituals that Israel performed in obedience to God. But as Hebrews says, all of this was “but a shadow of the good things to come.” They were like the preview. But just as a preview of a movie gives you a sense of the movie in advance of the full thing, so too did the preview of the Law anticipate the New Covenant in Christ, but without providing the fullness thereof. In other words, what the Law provided was “the copies of the heavenly things,” but not “the heavenly things themselves” (Hebrews 9:23). So this is what is suggested by John the Baptist’s claim that “after me comes he who is mightier than I” -- his baptism is of water alone; it’s an earthly preview of something heavenly, but with the baptism of Christ will come the heavenly thing itself: a baptism with the Holy Spirit.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”
This had never accompanied a baptism before the baptism of Christ. When Christ is baptized, the heavens open up and God the Holy Spirit himself descends upon him. And not only that, a voice descends with it, proclaiming a wonderful mystery: Christ, the baptized, is none other than the beloved Son of God, with whom the pleasure of God abides. This is not a coincidence. Even in the Old Covenant, to be a member of God’s people was always to be a member of a baptized people. As St. Paul says, baptism represents the passing of the people of God through the Red Sea at the Exodus; their salvation by the hand of God from the Egyptians (1 Corinthians 10:1-2). But now, with the baptism of Christ, the true, spiritual reality of what had been anticipated by both the baptism of John and even the entire experience of the people of God has finally arrived -- the heavenly thing has taken the place of the copy. The Baptism of Christ was the first baptism of water and the Holy Spirit -- and thus, as Jesus says himself, his is the baptism by which one enters the kingdom of heaven (John 3:5).
So this is the sense in which the baptism of Christ represents the shift from anticipation to culmination; all of the promises contained in the forms of the Old Covenant have been fulfilled in the New Covenant of Christ. But this shift is also a shift from a merely outward sign to an inward reality. The Baptism of Christ was not of water alone, but of water and the Holy Spirit. As we heard from the Letter to the Hebrews, the old forms and rituals were a preview of the real thing; they were the outward sign only. But with the manifestation of Christ as the Son of God, the ritual of baptism is now infused with the Holy Spirit. It is an “outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace,” as our Catechism says in the Prayer Book. This is what makes baptism a sacrament -- for it is not just an outward sign that represents something else, but an outward sign that actually accomplishes what it signifies. Baptism is not just an “empty ritual” or simply a practice we do to reenact our salvation or to share our testimony. By being baptized, we actually receive the grace of God. God actually does something in us when we are baptized. And this inward and spiritual grace of baptism is summed up in the words that came to our Lord from heaven: “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.” Christ’s identity as the Son of God was revealed through his baptism; accordingly, when we are baptized, we are baptized into that identity. We too become the Sons of God in Christ through baptism; we too receive the descent of the Holy Spirit upon us along with the declaration that we are now God’s children in whom he is well-pleased.
But what does it mean for Christ to be the beloved Son of God -- and by extension, for us to be the adopted children of God in Christ? Well, first, it means that God is well-pleased with us, just as he was of Christ at his baptism. But God is holy, and thus his pleasure only resides upon the one who like him is also holy. God is pleased with the one who is in a perfect relationship with him, as a father is with his son. It makes perfect sense, therefore, that Christ was revealed to be the Son of God -- for that is exactly who he is. God’s pleasure had been with him for all eternity, within the divine relationship of the Trinity. But this is not the case with us, at least not to begin with. Not only are we born into this world of sin as the “children of wrath,” but even if we were to somehow be the best human beings possible, we would still be only that -- human beings -- and thus still outside of the divine pleasure that the Father has with his beloved Son. But it is through baptism that we gain entrance into that pleasure. It is through baptism that we are not only cleansed of the original sin that separates from God’s pleasure, but also elevated by grace into the divine life itself -- we become “partakers” of the inheritance that belongs to Christ as the Son of God. Baptism is our regeneration. For baptism is the means by which we are adopted into Christ and thus are reborn as the children of God. “Do you not know,” asks St. Paul, that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). The “newness of life” is the life we live under the pleasure of God as his beloved children.
So all of the promises of the Old Covenant have now been fulfilled this day in the Baptism of Christ. The preview is over and the real thing has arrived. The manifestation of Christ as the beloved Son of God is now also the manifestation of all those who have been baptized into Christ as the beloved children of God. To conclude, however, recall St. Paul’s words that we are baptized into Christ’s death. In the Gospel account of Christ’s life, his baptism is not the end of the story, but rather the beginning. The revelation of Jesus as the Son of God sets in motion the earthly ministry of Jesus that will culminate in his death and resurrection. To be the beloved Son of God in a world like ours is to be hated by the world, for the darkness despises the Light. Which means that for us to be identified with Christ through our own baptisms is to be identified with the cross and with the death of Christ. But, says St. Paul, “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
...for we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:5, 9-11)
We who have been baptized have been baptized into the pleasure that God has with Christ his Son our Lord. The prayer that follows for us is that God may give us the grace we need to remain within that pleasure; that we may yield ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and our bodies as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:13).