Essay / Theology

The Baptism of Christ: Worth Pondering

Christmas is past, and in a church calendar that tracks with the life of Jesus, the season of epiphany is here. In some parts of the Christian tradition, that means it’s time to think about the wise men, who actually got to Bethlehem far too late to pose for the manger scene. In other parts of the Christian tradition, the season of epiphany jumps straight from the birth to the active ministry of Jesus, from the manger at Bethlehem to the baptism in the Jordan.

The baptism of Christ gets less attention than his birth, but in some ways it carries even more theological meaning. “Many great miracles were at Christ’s birth, but they were far greater at his baptism; …then was the Father silent, not a word from him; but now a loud voice is heard from heaven, ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” (Augustine, Sermon 36)

Austin Farrer makes this observation about the baptism story:

When St. John came to write the story of Christ’s baptism, he connected it with Jacob’s dream of the ladder from heaven to earth, on which the angels of God ascended and descended (John 1:32, 51). And certainly the Baptism has so many levels of meaning in it, that without ever going outside it we can run up as though by steps from earth to heaven and down again. At the height of it is the bliss of the Trinity above all worlds, in the midst is the sonship of Jesus to his Heavenly Father; at the foot of it (and here it touches us) is the baptism of any Christian. (Austin Farrer, The Triple Victory: Christ’s Temptation According to St. Matthew, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1965, p. 345).

The baptism of Christ is one of the major mysteries of the life of Christ, and a fruitful source for theological reflection. It draws attention to the interaction between Christ and the Holy Spirit in the economy of salvation, and spurs investigation into the eternal trinitarian ground and implications of their relationship within salvation history.

Reflecting on Christ in his baptism opens a spacious region between the moments of the incarnation and the crucifixion, in which thoughts about Jesus can be seen in a new light. Without taking away from the incarnation or the crucifixion, concentrating on the event of Christ’s baptism highlights the historical activity of the fellowship between Persons —the Persons of the Trinity— which makes Christ who he is. What we get to see when we ponder the baptism in the Jordan, what the first witnesses of it saw with their own eyes, is the Spirit descending on Christ.

The cooperation of Son and Spirit in the historical mission of redemption sets theology in motion, following the dramatic structure of the Father’s plan of salvation. Because trinitarian action in history is our only possible insight into the eternal relationships between the Persons of the Trinity within the mystery of the divine being, we need to come to terms with the baptism if we are to have an adequate and responsible doctrine of the Trinity at all.

The baptism is reported in the synoptic gospels, and is referred to also in John. Commentaries on those passages are a great place to start for deeper reflection on the meaning of Christ’s baptism. The gospels tell the story pretty quickly, but there is a wealth of information there if you stop and ponder.

Christian artists stopped and pondered, and as a result we have thousands of paintings which depict the baptism of Christ. These images are visual interpretations of the meaning of the baptism, and are a useful tool for understanding what God revealed there in the Jordan. For the rest of this week, I’ll be posting some notes on the history of the iconography of the baptism of Christ. I can warn you that it will be densely-written and slowly-paced. But there will be some pretty pictures along the way!

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