My first encounter with the New Testament came when I was a 20-year-old atheist, studying the Great Books at St. John’s College in New Mexico. The college’s single mandatory curriculum – “The Program” – took us through Matthew, John, and some of the major apostolic writings, all of which were new to me.
I found St. Paul’s letters provocative and fascinating. I remember telling a friend about certain verses which – even in my skepticism – I could not regard simply as products of the unaided human mind.
The Gospels, however, were a different matter. My primary response was one of confusion. I was baffled by St. Matthew and St. John, and by the Person to whom they introduced me.
Almost a decade has passed since then, and I no longer recall most of my initial confusions about the Gospels. Doubtless, many of the questions were cleared away by study, and by the grace of conversion.
But I remember one of my difficulties well. It had to do with the event that Byzantine Catholics, and our separated Eastern Orthodox brethren, commemorate on January 6.
On that date, the Feast of Theophany, we celebrate Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. (The Western Church generally celebrates it soon after, on the following Sunday.)
Reading about this event for the first time, prior to my conversion, I could not make sense of it.
The setting is familiar. John is preparing the Messiah’s way, preaching a message of conversion and offering a ritual immersion “for repentance.” This rite, though not the same as the later sacrament of Christian Baptism, is related to it: it is administered to those who came to John “confessing their sins.”
What happens next is familiar, yet strange. The Lamb of God – the paragon of purity; the one who is, in fact, God Incarnate – wants to receive this baptism “for repentance.” This seems absurd, even sacrilegious. John the Baptist suggests as much: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus’ response is cryptic, to say the least: “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Reading these words for the first time, as an atheist, I found them incomprehensible. What kind of “answer” was this? Was it even an answer?
Today, I am a believer. I regard Jesus’ baptism through the eyes of “faith seeking understanding.” And yet, it is still shocking – perhaps even moreso.
For instance: imagine Christ himself, standing in front of you in a line outside the Confessional on a Saturday afternoon. The analogy is imperfect, of course; but it conveys something of the shock that John the Baptist must have felt when Christ approached him by the river.
Over the years, through study and reflection, I have reached a better understanding of Christ’s baptism. Above all, I have come to understand it as an expression of Jesus’ solidarity with us: the Lord puts himself in the place of sinners, identifying with us in a supreme gesture of compassion.
Nonetheless, such an act cannot “make sense” in the ordinary, common-sense way. It is still the Incarnate God “repenting” in public – as if the Lord were a thief among thieves, an adulterer among adulterers. Our Maker – in his absolute perfection – not only joins the human race, but identifies with us at our worst.
The human mind naturally recoils from such paradoxes. Christ’s total identification with sinners is too strange. We might prefer to focus on other, more comprehensible aspects of the Lord’s baptism – aspects which are less paradoxical, though no less meaningful.
To be sure, the significance of Theophany does not lie exclusively in God’s identification of himself with fallen mankind. The Church Fathers and the liturgical tradition point us to other, equally important aspects of this mysterious event.
The Byzantine liturgy commemorates Christ’s baptism primarily as a revelation of the Holy Trinity. Hence the name, Theophany – which literally means “the showing-forth of God,” in his triune nature. As we sing in the Troparion Hymn of the feast:
“When You, O Lord were baptized in the Jordan / The worship of the Trinity was made manifest / For the voice of the Father bore witness to You / And called You His beloved Son. / And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, / Confirmed the truthfulness of His word.”
This perspective is true, and very important. But it is not the complete picture. How could Jesus descend into the waters, in the first place? Why did he join the ranks of sinners, receiving a baptism “for repentance”? Surely this was not the only way in which God could have revealed his triune inner life.
Granted, our liturgy does not totally ignore the paradoxical nature of Christ’s baptism: it refers, for instance, to Jesus coming “to the river as a man,” in order “to receive the baptism of a servant.” This is quite true, as far as it goes.
Such language, however, does not convey the entire paradox. For this is not only the baptism “of a servant,” but the baptism meant for contrite sinners. The Son of God comes to the river not only “as a man,” but precisely as if he were a wretched and sinful man.
Theophany, in the Byzantine rite, includes the Blessing of Waters – which often takes place outdoors, and signifies Jesus’ sanctification of the material world. This ritual portrays Christ’s own baptism as taking place so that “he might purify the water” – making it the sacred means of initiation into his Church.
Again, I see this perspective – which was taught by several early Church Fathers – as true, but incomplete. I can certainly believe that Jesus was baptized “to sanctify the nature of water”; but that does not fully explain what took place.
These sources do not completely obscure the strangeness of Christ’s baptism. However, they seem to emphasize those aspects which are less paradoxical: the revelation of the Trinity, the sanctification of matter, the larger context of salvation history.
Does this reflect a certain reluctance to celebrate the full measure of Christ’s humility? Are we hesitant to speak of the Lord as performing an act of repentance on our behalf?
We should not be afraid to speak in this way. Jesus, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “blends into the gray mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan.” Christ has come to the river “to place himself among sinners … to make himself a penitent with us.”
I can understand why the Church’ s liturgical worship would not stress this paradoxical, easily-misunderstood aspect of Christ’s baptism.
One way or another, however, we must understand Jesus’ identification and solidarity with us. Otherwise, we risk misunderstanding his entire character and mission.
We are naturally allergic to paradoxes; and we are prone to projecting our petty, selfish attitudes onto God. Thus, we may fall into the habit of imagining Christ as a proud, self-aggrandizing figure – lording his sinlessness over us, to torment and belittle us.
Through a kind of misguided religious zeal, we may even distort Jesus into a figure who – like the Pharisee in the Lord’s own parable – walks the earth in self-satisfied superiority, “thankful that he is not like other men.”
Thomas Merton warned against this danger: “It is Satan’s theology,” he wrote, “to make Christ the most perfect of all the Pharisees.”
But our Lord is not like this at all. The Baptism of Christ shows his true character, against all such distortions. In Merton’s words:
“Christ came on earth, not to wear the awful cold beauty of a holy statue, but to be numbered among the wicked, to die as one of them … If Christ is not really my brother with all my sorrows, with all my burdens on His shoulder and all my poverty and sadness in His heart, then there has been no redemption.”
Jesus is not a cold, aloof cosmic Caesar, who spares the condemned simply to demonstrate his own power and superiority over them. Nor is he a ruthless psychological manipulator, suffering so that we might feel overwhelming shame for making him suffer.
I do not think Merton was exaggerating, when he spoke of “Satan’s theology.” When we imagine Christ standing off at a distance, lording his sinlessness over us – as if to torment us, by condemning us to our own inward-turned self-loathing and despair – we can be sure that this is nothing but a demonic illusion.
Jesus, though perfectly pure, did not boast or revel in his own purity. He approached John to be baptized, as if he were a sinner.
The devil hates this truth, and tries to hide it from us. That is one of many reasons the Church celebrates it, joyously, every year.
Again and again, throughout our lives, we gather by the river – a “gray mass of sinners,” all-too-aware of our faults. And every time, we find the Messiah, our sinless Redeemer, standing in our midst as one of us.