Now when all the people were baptised, it came to pass that Jesus, also being baptised and praying, the heaven was opened

There are no events in the life of Jesus, His death only excepted, which are as well attested as His baptism. It stands at the beginning of His public work and is one of the few occasions in scripture when in Lancelot Andrewes' phrasing, all three great estates arrive; the Son who goes into the depths of the water, the Father who declares His to be His Son and the Spirit who descends on Him in the form of the dove.

Yet it has caused some embarassment to commentators; why did Jesus submit to baptism? That he might have got washed in some rite or other would have been fitting to a devout Jew and particularly to one who was so concerned with the Temple but a baptism of repentance? Of repentance? Of course Jesus has nothing of which to repent; we know that it is a matter of biblical witness and of faith that He is without sin.   

One classical view which goes back to Origen is that He is baptised to show His humility; ‘The solder baptises the King, the servant His Master, the Baptist his Redeemer’, as the Benedictus antiphon for today has it. This has a lot going for it but perhaps it suggests something not entirely straightforward about Jesus, a bit as if he is old schoolteacher joining in with a game of footie in the playground or a CR father joining in a snowball fight with children from the College. Another account is that which is indicated in this morning’s collect, namely that it is for His revelation, His manifestation, His identity. Luke is wonderful on this, for not only is John the Baptist sidelined (it seems that he  does not do the baptism in Luke) but you also have the Spirit in the form of bird, probably a very active bird, flying and beating its wings rather than the curious lump on top of Christ’s head which we get from pictures. This is also true but it suffers from the same problem of the first view.   

Yet the heart of the matter lies elsewhere; it is hinted at in some of those anitphons we have sung at Mattins, probably of Eastern origin: ‘A great mystery is revealed to us today, for the Creator of all has released us from our sins in the river Jordan’ (first antiphon to ps 18) and ‘The Saviour of the world for our redemption came to be  baptised’ (psalm 149; not a very good translation). For it is what Christ does in the waters and, afterwards, what happens to Him that surely clinches the matter. His baptism belongs to the work by which the world is saved, ‘our nature, marred by corruption’ ( from the antiphon to psalm 18 Veterem hominem1). Christ goes into the waters and that it is water is signiificant; if there had been a bout of piggy flu, sanitiser would not do. Far from it, water was something ambivalent for bible writes; it could give new life and it will do so but it often stands for what is against God; chaos and disorder.  As we heard at Mattins (Isaiah 43.2), in the mouth of the Lord, When you pass through the waters, I shall  be with you and through rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.’  Indeed in an early Christian writing (the Odes of Solomon 22; 24) the dragon is subdued and the abyss is sealed by the descent of Christ. Psalms 74 and 114 speak of the fight against that which goes against God and are often applied to baptism: ‘Thou didst break the head of the dragon on the waters (ps 74.13) and psalm 114 prophecies 'When Israel went out of Egypt, Jordan was driven back. The mountains skipped like rams and the little hills like young sheep'. It is present in the only one of the five antiphons for baptism of Christ  which we do not use2. At his baptism, Christ crushes the powers of death and opens heaven and Hippolytus of Rome adds ‘and we have seen the Creator in the form of a servant.’

It is what is done today that matters and why we can talk of the appearance of the divine, the manifesting of His character to the Gentiles. In the west we do rather get hung up on the cross and the resurrection as that which saves us; to be sure they do but it is not these mysteries alone which do that. The baptism of Christ also releases us, saves us from that which is disordered and against God. That which will be accomplished in the resurrection, the baptism with which we will be baptised with at Pentecost, this kicks in in big style when Christ goes under. Let no-one think that this is any ordinary happening or any ordinary man, a dull or everyday kind of guy; let no-one think that is what the taking of our nature means. This one can do what He does because not only is He born of Mary but is also born in God, eternally begotten as we will sing soon in the creed. Indeed there is a reading of the voice of God, 'You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased' (Codex Bezae) which may be the orginal reading that has 'Thou art my beloved son, this day have I begotten you’ (from Psalm 2).

This is why Christ prays, in all humility and lowliness and this is why He can pray and the heavens are opened and the Spirit comes upon Him. What does he pray? Well, it won’t be for a good bun fight after the baptism, you know, that Auntie Liz and step brother Jim don’t get into an argument about the latest document from Rome, an ordinary kind of prayer; no, this is the prayer of the One Who is God who is able to go down to the chaos and death and sort it and the One Who is man who is able to go up to open heaven, totally at one with God, the kind of unity which was given if but for moment, to Daniel and to Ezekiel, the kind of unity which, according to  a story of one of the early rabbis, Simon ben Zoma, who saw the Spirit of God, like a bird flapping and flying over the waters, the same Spirit which would come upon the Christ, the Messiah (it made him mad). Christ prays and He prays for the Spirit, for the presence of God to come, the glory, the shekinah. When He prays, He is answered; an open heaven, ongoing unity at the depth of His human soul, that not even the weight of sin on Calvary can rend.   

Humanity, like ours, receiving from the Father all that it has; humble for He is baptised after the rest but a humanity, not like ours, for this is a humanity not marred by corruption, which can access God and can go to the depths of our distance from God, a humanity such as was never before seen.

This humanity is something truly pleasing to God; without it none can come to God, we would have everything to fear. In the baptism of Christ we are included; when we are baptised and confirmed, then we are included in the baptism of Christ. There we are, in this humility, this freedom indeed, this human doing of a task only God can do. There we are, so we may be set free from sins and made open to the gift of God Himself. We are part of this baptism of Christ, we are not left out, if we have opened to the grace given to us, there is nothing to fear. As St Paul says (Ro 8.15) ‘you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear but you received the Spirit of sonship'. If we sin, we put all at hazard but we can turn again and know that that God has touched our depths and our chaos and that man has opened heaven. We know that in the stance of Jesus we can see som’at of ourselves.

As with Jesus Christ, we are not called to do something, to do a mission; His calling is not about a job or a career. The word of baptism is first of all about the delight of God in this beloved, this chosen, this one Who is begotten in time as He is begotten in eternity; let that good pleasure of God in His Christ be a good pleasure in us. I would like to think that if I were a parish priest or a reader or a minister or indeed a member of a missionary order, I would say this also but there is nothing more important than this.

It is why there is no more important thing to do than to try to pray, whoever you are. You may have it hard with the prayer thing, you may not feel too good at it (good that!) but it is the most important thing you will ever do. In the words of a monk who was born near to where I used to live, “one can probably – rather certainly – do more to convert the world by keeping very close to God and growing in union with Him, than by any outside work – though it seems difficult to believe it sometimes3


1  Veterem hominem renovans Salvator, venit ad baptismum: ut naturam, quć corrupta erat, per aquam recuperaret, incorruptibili veste circumamictans nos.  This combines texts from Col3.9,  Eph 4.22, both about baptism,  veterem hominem cum actibus eius, the old man with his deeds (Col 3.9) and  veterem hominem, qui corrumpitur secundum desideria erroris, the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.    

2  Caput draconis Salvator contrivit in Jordanis flumine: et ab ejus potestate omnes eripuit.

3  Ashfield, Suffolk .  Spiritual Letters of John Chapman OSB (1865 – 1933), p138

Thomas Seville CR