Today is the feast day of the Baptism of Our Lord (Octave of the Epiphany) .
With this Feast, Christmas ends liturgically, though it continues on in spirit and as a liturgical cycle until Candlemas when we recall Mary’s post-birth Purification and Our Lord’s Presentation in the Temple. (2)
by Abbot Gueranger
The thoughts of the Church today are fixed on the Baptism of Our Lord in the Jordan, which is the second of the three Mysteries of the Epiphany. The Emmanuel manifested Himself to the Magi, after having shown Himself to the Shepherds; but this manifestation was made within the narrow space of a stable at Bethlehem, and the world knew nothing of it. In the Mystery of the Jordan, Christ manifested Himself with greater publicity. His coming is proclaimed by the Precursor St. John; the crowd that is flocking to the river for baptism is the witness of what happens; Jesus makes this the beginning of His public life. But who could worthily explain the glorious circumstances of this second Epiphany?
It resembles the first in this, that it is for the benefit and salvation of the human race. The star has led the Magi to Christ; they had long waited for His coming, they had hoped for it; now they believe. Faith in the Messias having come into the world is beginning to take root among the Gentiles. But Faith is not sufficient for salvation; the stain of sin must be washed away by water. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved (Mark 16: 16). The time is come, then, for a new manifestation of the Son of God, whereby there shall be inaugurated the great remedy, which is to give to Faith the power of producing life eternal.
Now the decrees of Divine Wisdom had chosen water as the instrument of this sublime regeneration of the human race. Hence, in the beginning of the world, we find the Spirit of God moving over the waters (Gen. 1: 2), in order that they might “even then conceive a principle of sanctifying power,” as the Church expresses it in Her Blessing of the Baptismal Font during the Easter Vigil. But before being called to fulfill the designs of God’s mercy, this element of water had to be used by the Divine Justice for the chastisement of a sinful world. With the exception of one family, the whole human race perished, by the terrible judgment of God, in the waters of the deluge.
A fresh indication of the future supernatural power of this chosen element was given by the Dove, which Noe sent forth from the Ark; it returned to him, bearing in its beak an olive branch; the symbol that peace was given to the earth by its having been buried in water. But this was only the announcement of the mystery; its accomplishment was not to be for long ages to come.
Meanwhile, God spoke to His people by many events, which were figurative of the future Mystery of Baptism. Thus, for example, it was by passing through the waters of the Red Sea that they entered into the Promised Land, and during the miraculous passage, a pillar of a cloud was seen covering both the Israelites and the waters to which they owed their deliverance.
But in order that water should have the power to purify man from his sins, it was necessary that it should be brought into contact with the Sacred Body of the Incarnate God. The Eternal Father had sent His Son into the world, not only that He might be its Lawgiver, Redeemer, and the Victim of its salvation, but that He might also be the Sanctifier of Water; and it was in this sacred element that He would divinely bear testimony to His being His Son, and manifest Him to the world a second time.
Jesus, therefore, being now thirty years of age, comes to the Jordan, a river already celebrated for the prophetic miracles which had been wrought in its waters. The Jewish people, roused by the preaching of John the Baptist, were flocking thither in order to receive a baptism which could indeed excite a sorrow for sin, but could not effect its forgiveness. Our Divine King approaches the river, not, of course, to receive sanctification, for He Himself is the Author of all Justice—but to impart to Water the power of bringing forth, as the Church expresses the mystery, a new and heavenly progeny. He goes down into the stream, not, like Josue, to walk dry-shod through its bed, but to let its waters encompass Him, and receive from Him, both for itself and for the Waters of the whole earth, the sanctifying power which they would retain forever. The saintly Baptist places his trembling hand upon the Sacred Head of the Redeemer, and bends it beneath the water; the Sun of Justice vivifies this His creature; He imparts to it the glow of life-giving fruitfulness; and Water thus becomes the prolific source of supernatural life.
But in this commencement of a new creation, we look for the intervention of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. All Three are here. The heavens open; the Dove descends, not as a mere symbol, prophetic of some future grace, but as the sign of the actual presence of the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of life, Who gives peace to men and changes their hearts. The Dove hovers above the head of Jesus, overshadowing at one and the same time the Humanity of the Incarnate Word and the water which bathed His sacred Body.
The manifestation is not complete; the Father’s voice is still to be heard speaking over the Water, and moving by its power the entire element throughout the earth. Then was fulfilled the prophecy of David: The Voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of majesty hath thundered. The Voice of the Lord breaketh cedars, that is, the pride of the devils. The Voice of the Lord divideth the flame of fire, that is, the anger of God. The Voice of the Lord shaketh the desert, and maketh the flood to swell, that is, announces a new Deluge, the Deluge of Divine Mercy (Ps. 128). And what says this Voice of the Father? This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased (Matt. 3: 17).
Thus was the holiness of Emmanuel manifested by the presence of the Dove and by the voice of the Father, as His kingly character had been previously manifested by the mute testimony of the star. The mystery is accomplished, the Waters are invested with a spiritual purifying power, and Jesus comes from the Jordan and ascends the bank, raising up with Himself the world, regenerated and sanctified, with all its crimes and defilements drowned in the stream. Such is the interpretation and language of the Holy Fathers of the Church regarding this great event of Our Lord’s life.
The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates this wonderful mystery of Jesus’ Baptism; and we cannot be surprised at the Eastern Church having selected this day for one of the solemn administrations of the Sacrament of Baptism. The same custom was observed, as we learn from ancient documents, in certain Churches in the West. We are told that, as regards the Oriental Church, the Font was more than once miraculously filled with water on the Feast of the Epiphany, and that immediately after having administered the Sacrament, the people saw the water disappear. The Roman Church, even so early as the time of St. Leo, decreed that Easter and Pentecost should be the only two days for the solemn administration of Baptism; but the custom of blessing the baptismal water with great solemnity on the Epiphany was still retained in some parts of the West for a considerable time.
The Eastern Church had always religiously observed it. Amidst all the pomp of sacred rites, accompanied by his priests and ministers, who were clothed in the richest vestments, and followed by the whole people, the Bishop would repair to the banks of a river. After reciting certain beautiful prayers, he would plunge into the river a Cross richly adorned with precious stones; it represented Our Lord being baptized by St. John. At St. Petersburg, the ceremony would take place on the River Neva, and it was through a hole made in the ice that the Metropolitan would dip the Cross into the water. This same ceremony was observed by those Churches in the West which had retained the custom of blessing the baptismal water on this Feast.
The faithful were very anxious to carry home with them some of the water thus sanctified; and St. John Chrysostom, in his 24th Homily, on the Baptism of Christ, speaks to his audience of the circumstance, which was well known by all of them, of this water never turning corrupt. The same has been often seen in the Western Church. (To accommodate the desires of the faithful of the West, the Sacred Congregation of Rites approved, on December 6, 1890, a solemn blessing of holy water for the Vigil of the Epiphany.)
Let us honor Our Lord in this second manifestation of His Divinity, and thank Him, with the Church, for having given us both the Star of Faith which enlightens us, and the Water of Baptism which cleanses us from our iniquities. Let us lovingly appreciate the humility of our Jesus, Who permits Himself to be weighed down by the hand of a mortal man, in order, as He says Himself, that He might fulfill all justice (Matt. 3: 15); for having taken on Himself the likeness of sin, it was requisite that He should bear its humiliation, that so He might raise us from our debasement. Let us thank Him for this grace of Baptism, which has opened to us the gates of the Church both of Heaven and earth; and let us renew the vows we made at the holy Fount, for they were the terms on which we were regenerated to our new life in God. (1)
The Baptism of the Lord is observed as a distinct feast in the Roman rite, although it was originally one of three Gospel events marked by the feast of the Epiphany. Long after the visit of the Magi had in the West overshadowed the other elements commemorated in the Epiphany, Pope Pius XII instituted in 1955 a separate liturgical commemoration of the Baptism.
In fact, The Tridentine Calendar has no feast of the Baptism of the Lord. It was almost four centuries later that the feast was instituted, under the denomination “Commemoration of the Baptism of our Lord”, for celebration on 13 January as a major double, using for the Office and the Mass those previously said on the Octave of the Epiphany, which Pius XII abolished; but if the Commemoration of the Baptism of Our Lord occurred on Sunday, the Office and Mass were to be those of the Feast of the Holy Family without any commemoration. (4)
In his revision of the calendar five years later, Pope John XXIII kept on 13 January the “Commemoration of the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ”, with the rank of a second-class feast.
Image: Baptism of Christ, artist: Giotto di Bondone, circa 1266-1337 (5)
Research by REGINA Staff