I had hoped to post this yesterday. Regrettably, by the time I recovered from my Sunday afternoon nap, my daughter was diligently working on a history essay and I thought it best to let her continue. I may be important to note that, while the feast was technically yesterday, many CEC churches lack facilities and are unable to celebrate mid-week services. As a result, many CEC parishes, including my own, observed Epiphany yesterday and will observe the Baptism of Our Lord on the coming Sunday. For many, this message will be a day late and a dollar short; for some, I hope, it will be thought-provoking and provide some pleasing grist for next week’s mill.
This past Sunday the Church celebrates the baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the River Jordan at the hands of Saint John the Baptist. Liturgically speaking, the observance of this feast on the first Sunday after Epiphany is a very new phenomenon. Historically, the Feast of the Epiphany commemorated three distinct events in the Gospels: the adoration of Our Lord by the Magi, the baptism of Our Lord, and the wedding at Cana. Over time adoration of the Magi greatly overshadowed and became the primary focus of Epiphany and the others were largely neglected. In 1955, Pope Pius XII created a Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord and, in 1969, Pope Paul VI set the date of the feast as the first Sunday after Epiphany. Anglicanism appears to have followed the popes’ lead in this movement since the 1928 Book of Common Prayer does not observe the feast, but the 1979 edition does. Not nearly receiving the credit it is due, the Wedding at Cana is only read on the second Sunday after Epiphany every third year.
In reflecting upon the Baptism of Our Lord, one question always rises to the fore: why did Jesus need to be baptized? John’s baptism was a “baptism of repentance” (St. Mark 1:4; St. Luke 3:3; Acts 19:4) and Jesus “knew no sin.” (II Corinthians 5:21) Since, as St. Peter reminds us, Jesus “committed no sin” (I Peter 2:22), why then did he need to undergo a baptism of repentance? The question has puzzled laymen and theologians alike since the apostles went on to their heavenly rewards.
First off, Saint Hilary, a fourth century bishop of the French city Poitiers, reminds us that Our Lord did not need to be baptized at all. “It was not because Christ had a need that he took a body and a name from our creation,” says the saint. Likewise, “He had no need for baptism.” It was not because He had a need that Our Lord became incarnate from the Virgin Mary. He had no need to heal the sick, cause the lame to walk, give sight to the blind, raise the dead, suffer under Pontius Pilate, and die on a cross. That was our need. We needed him to take on our flesh that he might atone for our sin and redeem all flesh. We needed him to heal us, open our eyes, raise us up with him that having “died with Christ… we shall also live with Him.” (I Corinthians 6:8) Reiterating: Our Lord did not need to be baptized; we needed him to be baptized, and so He met our need.
Some will say that is only a semantic response that does not really answer the question. Rephrasing, the question still remains: why did Our Lord insist that St. John baptize Him in the River Jordan?
In the second chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrew, the Apostle writes:
Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted. (vv 17-18)
Our Lord was made like us in all ways so that He could redeem all of us. Were He not fully human, then He could not have fully and completely redeemed humanity. In fully participating in our life, He was able to fully redeem our lives. Through His participation, every aspect of our lives was able to be sanctified. He sanctified birth through His own birth; He sanctified marriage through His attendance at the wedding at Cana; He sanctified death through His own death and resurrection. By his own participation in the waters of Baptism, He sanctified those waters so that we might participate in Baptism and know forgiveness of sins before we face Our Maker in the Last Judgment. As with all things, Our Lord acted on our behalf. He humbled Himself to be baptized at the hands of a man, not for His own sake, but for ours. Our Lord allowed Himself to be Baptized so that we might be baptized and receive our first forgiveness of sins. All in all things, He led the way and showed us the way in which we should walk. May we, in all ways and in all aspects of our life, follow His example.