On the Sunday after Epiphany the Western Church celebrates the Baptism of the Lord. For the Eastern Church, Epiphany itself, January 6, is focused on this same event. And as I’ve noted before, in the East this celebration is a very big deal — along with Christmas and Easter it is a the top of the heap.
And it must be a greater event than most of us Protestant types give it credit for, since it is one of the few stories that occur in one form or another in all four Gospels. All versions have the elements that define Orthodoxy’s main focus for Epiphany, or “Theophany” as they prefer to call it, though the Gospels vary on who sees and hears what:
- The Son is baptized.
- The Spirit appears as a dove.
- The voice of the Father is heard.
Thus, as I emphasized last year, the Orthodox hymn proclaims, here “the worship of the Trinity was made manifest.” In one scene, for the first time all three Persons of the Trinity are perceived by human senses. What was hinted at throughout the Old Testament is now clear.
That’s the revelation, the theophany, the epiphany.
But Matthew, whose version we see in “Year A” of the lectionary, emphasizes one detail more clearly than the other Gospels do. It’s the interaction between the cousins, Jesus and John, when Jesus came to be baptized:
John would have prevented him, saying,
‘I need to be baptized by you,
and do you come to me?’
But Jesus answered him,
‘Let it be so now;
for it is proper for us in this way
to fulfill all righteousness.’
Then he consented.” (Matthew 3:14-15 NRSV)
There are two interesting things going on here. 1: John hesitates to baptize Jesus. 2: Jesus says that getting baptized by John will “fulfill all righteousness.”
“John would have prevented him…”
In the other Gospels, John tells the crowd that someone is coming later (we know it’s Jesus) who is so great that John isn’t worthy to tie his shoes.
Only in Matthew does this issue come up in a personal conversation with Jesus. John doesn’t want to baptize Jesus. John suggests that instead Jesus should baptize him.
Scripture doesn’t say much more, but it is evocative. What did John see in Jesus that made him feel so unworthy?
The question gets explored in another Orthodox hymn, sung during the morning prayer or “Orthros” service on Epiphany. Here it is from the Ages “Digital Chant Stand”:
God the Logos has appeared in the flesh to the human race.
As He stood in the Jordan waiting to be baptized,
the Forerunner said to Him,
‘How can I reach out with my hand
and touch the head that controls the universe?
Though as an infant You came from Mary,
Yet I know You to be the pre-eternal God.
You walk on earth,
You who are extolled by the Seraphim.
And I do not know how a servant ought to baptize his Master.
Incomprehensible Lord, glory to You.’
The writer of this hymn is doing a couple of the things that I so enjoy about Orthodox hymnody. Like many others, this hymn is a tiny little meditation on a biblical passage. If you read all the hymns of a particular day you end up considering that day’s biblical text from many different angles.
Notice that it meditates on the text in light of a major theme of biblical theology: Matthew doesn’t identify Christ as Logos, or incarnate Word, but John 1 makes that point powerfully. The hymn reads Matthew’s plain narrative in light of John’s rich theology.
And notice that this meditation imagines what the characters are thinking. It’s a technique to help us step deeply into the text. Yes, the hymn writer puts non-biblical words into the mouth of John — as many preachers do. The hymn writer’s imagination invites us to use our imaginations, pondering the text prayerfully, to help us make deeper sense of the text.
And notice the reveling in biblical paradox: the human child of Mary is also the pre-eternal God. It is simply unthinkable for a mere human like John to touch God, his own creator and the providential guide of all creation. And yet John must baptize Jesus.
John’s hesitation is not a vague sense that Jesus is superior or more holy. Matthew’s simple narrative is read imaginatively in light of a great theological theme to show exactly why John hesitates to baptize Jesus.
“…to fulfill all righteousness.”
I think Jesus’ response is the more difficult, enigmatic part of the conversation.
On the night of Epiphany I told my kids the story of the Baptism of Jesus at bedtime. It went something like this.
Jesus’ cousin John washed people to help them start a new life turned toward God. In the waters of the Jordan River they washed off all the dirt of their old life turned away from God. Then they came up out of the water to try to live turned toward God.
Jesus came to John and asked John to wash him too.
John said “Jesus, you are ALREADY turned toward God. You ARE God! Why should I wash you? You should wash me instead.”
But Jesus said, “I want to start at the very beginning to show people what a life turned toward God looks like. Wash me today, and everyone will see that I’m with them, as we turn our lives toward God. Then they can follow me all the way toward God.”
I don’t know if that quite makes sense of Jesus’ desire “to fulfill all righteousness,” but that’s what came out when I needed to put it at a kid’s level.
May your celebration of the Baptism of Jesus help you and those around you live toward God.
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