“Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.’” [Isaiah 42:1]
Last Sunday, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. The epiphany, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is an appearance or manifestation, especially of a divine being. This is why the alternative title for the Epiphany in our prayer book is “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.”
However, whereas the Western Churches use the visit of the Magi as the lesson for the day, the Eastern Churches use the Baptism of Christ as their documentation for the manifestation of Christ. This may seem odd to us in the West, but actually, it is the more traditional reading for the Feast Day.
The Eastern Churches have had the Feast of the Epiphany for a long time. By the Third Century, it was considered one of the chief feast days, ranking up there with Pentecost and Easter. And all during this time, the Gospel lesson for the day was the Baptism of Christ. In the Fourth Century, the West finally adopted this feast day, but they changed the lesson. We changed it to the one we are familiar with today – the one about the Magi.
So why do the Eastern Churches see Jesus’ Baptism as the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles? To answer this question, we need to look at our lessons for today, baptism itself, and also the traditions of God’s people, the Israelites.
Our Gospel lesson for today is one of Christ’s most unique acts. It is unique because it is clear that Jesus did not need to be baptized:
And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not: John answered, saying unto them all, “I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.”
In order to understand why Jesus did not need to be baptized, we must first understand what baptism really means. Many people and many religions have their own interpretation of baptism. But I would venture to guess that a majority of people really don’t understand what baptism means. This has lead to some very interesting results.
There was a little girl whose infant brother was about to be baptized in a Catholic church. But when the priest started to pour the water over her little brother’s head, she turned to the priest and said, “Father, don’t forget to wash behind his ears too.”
I don’t believe there is anyone who fully understands baptism. Baptism is a Sacrament, which means it has both an outward manifestation and an inward spiritual reality. It is not fully understandable because it has a mystical quality, like communion, that resists explanation. But we do need to understand as much as we can.
There are three reasons why baptism is important. First, it is a commitment. For those who are adults, it is a commitment to live a Christian life. For infants, it is a commitment by both parents and godparents to raise their child as a Christian. Either way, it is a very important commitment by those participating.
Second, baptism is an act of contrition, especially when an adult is baptized. It is an act of humility and an act of repentance. We humble ourselves by acknowledging our fallen nature, and we repent of it when we choose to be baptized. This is why, I suspect, those faiths that do not have the sacrament of confession often engage in multiple baptisms. It is the only way they feel truly absolved of their sins.
Third, baptism remakes us. This is where our eyes fail, and where our faith is engaged. But, there are certain things that, as Christians, we must believe. The first is that man fell from grace. If we do not believe in the Fall, then there is no need to believe in Christ. We must believe that we need to be saved or else there is no need for a Messiah.
We must also believe that only through baptism is this fallen nature removed, and we are regenerated. Now, I understand that there are certain faiths that do not believe in the mystical qualities of sacraments. These churches see sacraments as merely symbolic. But for us who belong to one of the Catholic faiths, we believe that something very real is happening. We believe in the regeneration of the soul.
Regeneration is the rebirth of the soul. It is the belief that baptism confers a cleansing of original sin and the bestowing of grace and union with Christ, which has regenerating spiritual powers. Baptism brings Christians from a state of subjection to death, to new life as a new creation.
Will we sin again afterwards? Certainly. But this does not eliminate the fact that our souls experience something wonderfully real at baptism. We experience the joy of being reconnected to God. As the Fall separated all mankind from God, baptism removes this impediment and truly makes us, once again, part of God’s family.
And this, in turn brings us back to why Christ chose to be baptized. After all, He was born without sin. He had no fallen nature from which to be absolved. But there is something else unique to Christ’s baptism. And this unique quality is revealed to us in our Old Testament lesson for today:
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.’”
The season of Epiphany is a time when we celebrate God’s great mercy. We celebrate God’s intent to bring all the gentiles back into God’s fold. Remember that God chose the Israelites to be a nation of priests for the entire world, but Israel rebelled against God and His plan. The Israelites were the chosen people, set apart by God. And God gave them a sign to show that they were set apart. That sign is circumcision. But God also made it clear that, when the Messiah came, he would come to save the Gentiles as well as the Israelites.
Christ personally instituted two sacraments, what we call the major sacraments. They are Holy Communion and Baptism. Through the Sacrament of Baptism, Christ made it possible for the gathering in of all the gentiles. Through baptism ALL people, whether they are Jew or gentile, become part of God’s family.
And by Christ’s great act of being baptized, He made it clear that all, every one of us, must be baptized. This, in turn, is why the Eastern Churches see Jesus’ Baptism as the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. He wanted all of us to go through this mystical act of bathing, not only to remove the sin, which is a product of our fallen nature, but also to open up the kingdom of heaven to everyone who believes.
Instead of circumcision, we have baptism to acknowledge we are part of God’s family. This is the great act of compassion that is contained in Christ’s very simple act, where He humbled Himself to be baptized. And from this simple act comes a great act of love – our acceptance into the family of God. No wonder God the Father was heard saying:
“Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased.”