Feast of Epiphany

January 7, 2011

"The One who clothes Himself with light as with a robe designed for our sakes to become as we are. Today He is clothed in the streams of the Jordan even though He has no need to be purified. He refashions us by the cleansing that He receives. What a marvelous wonder! He creates anew without fire and refashions without tearing apart. He grants salvation to those enlightened by Him. Christ our God! The Savior of our souls!"

- Byzantine Hymn for the Epiphany

Sunday, January 9, is the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus in the Western Church, an echo of the Epiphany Feast the week before. In the West, the center of the Feast of Epiphany is the Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem to honor the newborn King. In the East, the Feast of the Epiphany is the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. The two emphases are complementary in nature. For the West, the commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan is the comet's tail of the Epiphany Feast that reveals the shining forth of the Son of God to all the nations: first to the Magi, then in the opening of His public life by the act of humility in being baptized by John.

All four Gospels record the Baptism of Christ, an interesting piece of information when we recall that the event could have been seen as an embarrassment. Why does the sinless One need to undergo the Baptism of repentance of John the Baptist? Why did He allow it? Did not John himself say that he (John) was unworthy to untie the Messiah's sandal strap? Or as another Eastern Christian hymn puts it: "The Baptist cried, ‘How can I who am grass touch with my hand the immaterial fire of your divinity?'"

The Gospels themselves indicate that this event initiates the public life of the now fully grown Son of Man. He "allows" this act as one of solidarity with all of sinful humanity. It is an act of example for all, according to St. Thomas Aquinas. Such an observation is true, but the Baptism of Jesus by John also manifests a new stage, a new "human consciousness," if you will, on Jesus' part – a genuine movement of awareness in Jesus Christ, of immersion in our life, an event that makes the proclamation of the Kingdom of God and the call of the first apostles and disciples a very public "thing." From a quiet hidden-ness, Jesus now emerges to bring about and embody the Kingdom of God, the conquering of the chaos of sin and the illumination of all those called now into a new recognition of the closeness of God and of friendship with God.

Further, all four Gospels state that at His Baptism, Jesus is also publicly acclaimed by His Father and the Holy Spirit makes an almost "physical" entry by hovering like a dove. The voice of the Father is heard and declares Jesus is "my Beloved Son." In the history of the Old Covenant, from the time of the failure of Adam and Eve, the voice of God is heard only to induce fear and hiding. Now, for the first time, the Son of Man hears the Father's voice and basks in the Father's acknowledgement of Him. In Christ, all hiding human beings can come now into the open and begin their journey home to the Father. They will not only be saved and redeemed, but become co-participants and witnesses with the well-beloved Son of the Father's loving plan.

Christ's Baptism is unique insofar as He was sinless and indicated His solidarity with us by accepting Baptism with John. But our own Christian Baptism has a similarity with what happened at the Jordan with Jesus. Each newly baptized Christian, having come from the font freed from sin, is also acknowledged not only as a beloved son or daughter, but a son or daughter who shares in Christ's unique work.

The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan is an invitation to re-examine our own Baptismal calling, a calling that has led to our being sent for a unique witness and work for Christ. We are called and sent! (Christ only had to be sent as He never needed to be called: He was always the Son of the Father.) To be "sent" means to discern what it is Christ wants from us because of our Baptism. Our vocation is a Baptismal call and sending. It requires grace, prayer, perseverance and obedience to live out that call.

The week of January 9 was a week for prayer for vocations to priesthood and religious life. This is right and good. It could also be a week for any form of further vocational assessment by each of us who are Baptized. Christ refashioned us, saved us from sin, and did so without tearing apart our humanity. He healed it! That healing has opened up a door for us to live baptismal lives of witness and power in behalf of the same Christ, the Savior of our souls!