Friday, January 6, 2012

The Baptism of Christ: 'He was cleansed for all men's sins'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today is the Feast of the Holy Theophany of Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ – or simply, Theophany. We celebrated the feast yesterday evening with a Vesperal Liturgy that was pretty well-attended. Those present were able to take some of the blessed water home following the service of the Great Blessing of Water. We will repeat that service on Sunday following the Liturgy, for the Afterfeast continues until January 14.

Theophany – or Epiphany as it is sometimes called – has many profound themes that reveal a great deal about the ministry of Christ, as well as many theological insights into cosmology (the cosmos and world around us), anthropology (the meaning of the human person), soteriology (the meaning of salvation), etc. Here, through the words of Archbishop Kallistos Ware, we can examine a far-from-simple question: Just why was Christ – the sinless Son of God – baptized, if baptism is for “the forgiveness of sin?” Allowing the text for the service of Theophany to answer the question, Archbishop Ware summarizes as follows:

Why was Christ baptized? We are baptized because we are sinful: we go down dirty into the water, and we emerge cleansed. But what need had Christ, who is sinless, to undergo baptism in the Jordan? To this, the liturgical texts answer: "Though as God He needs not cleansing, yet for the sake of fallen man He is cleansed in the Jordan" (Matins of the feast, First Canon, Canticle Five); "As man He is cleansed that I may be made clean" (Compline on January 5, Canon, Canticle One). "For the sake of sinful man": in reality it is not He who is cleansed in the Jordan but we ourselves. In taking manhood upon Him at His Incarnation; Our Lord assumed a representative role: He became a New Adam, summing up the whole human race in Himself, just as the first Adam summed up and contained all mankind in himself at the Fall. On the Cross, although sinless, Jesus Christ suffered and died for the sins of all humanity; and in the same way at His baptism, although sinless, He was cleansed for all men’s sins. When He went down into the Jordan, as the New Adam He carried us sinful men down with Him: and there in the waters He cleansed us, bearing each of us up once more out of the river as a new creature, regenerate and reconciled.
(Festal Menaion, Background and Meaning of the Feasts, p. 57-58)

Once again, this Feast is endlessly rich in themes essential to our lives as Orthodox Christians, and we will try and explore more of them in the days to come.

Fr. Steven