Thus says God, the Lord… who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A blessed Epiphany to you all! It was so great to join many of you at our annual Epiphany Pageant on Thursday evening – the perfect way to kick off the season of Epiphanytide! And today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany, which is always the appointed day for the commemoration of the Baptism of Christ. This also makes today one of the four major “Baptism Sundays” so-called, for obvious reasons.
But the Baptism of our Lord by John the Baptist in the river Jordan is chiefly an Epiphany event – that’s why we begin the Sundays of Epiphany with it each year. For Epiphany is about manifestation; specifically, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, as we find with the arrival of the magi from the east to visit him, but also the manifestation of his true identity as the Son of God that we encounter at his Baptism. Epiphany is therefore the inevitable extension of Christmas: if the birth of Christ was the entrance of God into the world, the Epiphany is the realization of the world that God had entered. But the Baptism of Christ also gives us an opportunity to revisit what the point of baptism is at all; why it matters to us as the sacrament of faith and of our own entrance into the divine life. Because, whatever the reason was that Christ willed to be baptized by John in the river Jordan reveals to us the reason that we are to be baptized as well. The Baptism of Christ is an event that is ultimately for us, just as the voice that came down from heaven proclaims a message that is for us.
This message from heaven is that Christ is “my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.” Now, this was true of Christ all along, as he is the eternally begotten Son of God. Jesus didn’t become the beloved Son at his baptism; rather, his baptism reveals to us who he was and is and will be forever. The voice from heaven therefore explains to us the meaning of Christ’s baptism. That’s what makes it an epiphany. For the Jews who had gathered at the river Jordan “in anticipation,” this voice would have called to mind the promise from the prophet Isaiah that we heard in our Old Testament reading this morning, which said that the chosen servant of God would be the one on whom God has put his Spirit, the one “in whom my soul delights.” Or, as the voice from heaven declared, the one with whom God is well pleased. The baptism of Christ therefore represents the arrival of God’s chosen servant, who, bearing the Spirit of God upon him, “will bring forth justice to the nations.”
In Scripture, justice and righteousness are often used interchangeably, for righteousness is simply another way of talking about a person who is in perfect fellowship with God and neighbor – and perfect fellowship is simply what justice is. So, it’s not surprising that, in St. Matthew’s Gospel, we read that when Jesus first approached John the Baptist to be baptized, John was understandably hesitant. “I need to be baptized by you,” John tells Jesus, “and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). But Jesus insists, saying “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15), to fulfill all justice. As the servant of God, Christ can bring justice to the world because he already enjoys the justice of perfect fellowship with God, the God who delights in him.
This is an important point, because it keeps us from the error of thinking that Christ was baptized because he needed to be cleansed from sin. That’s certainly why we need to be baptized, but that doesn’t apply to Christ; just as we need to be baptized to be made the children of God by adoption and grace, where Christ was already the Son of God from eternity by his divine nature. As we hear from Isaiah, the chosen servant of God is the one who brings justice and righteousness to the world that so desperately needs it; he doesn’t need it himself, for he already possesses it as the one who bears God’s Spirit and enjoys God’s delight.
Now, if Christ had no need for the remission of sins, no need for adoption as the Son of God, no need for the righteousness and justice of God that he already had in full, then that means that Christ did not actually need to be baptized. But in his divine love for the world, he knew that we needed all of those things. And so it was fitting that he was baptized in order that he could fulfill for us what we could not fulfill on our own. As John the Baptist himself admitted, he could only baptize with water; his baptism was real because it was an act of repentance whereby the baptized were “induced…to refrain from sin” . But it was still only a human act, whether we’re talking about John’s baptism or the repentance of those whom he baptized. At most, John’s baptism with water could aid in one’s pursuit of righteousness, but it could not fulfill it. That was something that only Christ’s baptism could do, for it was not with water alone, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Christ’s baptism actually effected what John’s baptism could only encourage; where John’s baptism inspired people to refrain from sin, Christ’s baptism was for “the remission of sin and the conferring of grace” . Christ therefore consented to be baptized by John because John’s baptism was not a “spiritual baptism” for which he had no need. Instead, he accepted John’s baptism in order to sanctify it with the grace which he alone possessed as the Son of God . In other words, it was not Christ who was changed by being baptized; it was baptism that was changed by Christ being baptized. Baptism is no longer with water alone, but with water and the Spirit.
The Baptism of Christ means that every baptized person from that point onward is baptized in the river Jordan, so to speak, for the water of baptism is the water that touched the body of our Lord and was thereby sanctified forever to be the water of regeneration and the remission of sin. And as those who have received Christ’s baptism, the voice from heaven now descends upon us. For baptism is the sacrament by which we become adopted as children of God; it is the means by which God embraces us in his Son, as his Sons, and he is well-pleased with us.
Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread forth the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness….”
It is through the Baptism of Christ that God calls us, for the Epiphany is that Christ is revealed to us as the chosen servant of God, the one who has brought justice to us and to the nations. With that justice comes the Spirit, who descends upon every person who is baptized to cleanse them of all their sins and to fill their souls with grace. And God is well-pleased in all his children. Amen.
 St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae. III, Q. 39.