The Orthodox hymns surrounding the Baptism of Christ (Matt 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34) are an abundant source of theology (dogmatic and poetic) as well as biblical commentary. The Jordan River, mentioned more than 180 times in English Bibles, is not only a geographical reality but it is a mystical location involved with numerous Old Testament theophanies.
The Troparion of the Eve of Theophany says:
“Of old, the River Jordan turned back before Elisha’s mantle at Elijah’s ascension. The waters were made to part in two so the wet surface became a dry path. This was truly a symbol of baptism in which we cross through mortal life. Christ has come in the Jordan to sanctify the waters!”
In the above hymn we get a sense of an Orthodox reading of scripture. The events of 2 Kings 2:13-14 (Elisha parting the River Jordan with Elijah’s mantle) are referenced, but the significance of the story is not that it proved that Elijah’s power had passed on to Elisha but the story is read as “a symbol of baptism.” The meaning of the story is not merely God acting in history or the charismatic office of the prophet, but rather is found in Christ. Without Christ, the story’s most important meaning remains hidden. The events in the story are understood as a symbol of baptism, meaning they help us to understand what baptism is. Thus the events of 2 Kings 2 are significant not so much as ancient history telling us about something God did long ago, but because they help us to understand Christ and our life in Him.
The hymn specifically connects baptism to crossing “through mortal life.” This is also an interesting interpretation of baptism itself which is not a one time ritual we experience, but rather is a passage through this life into the life of the world to come. Baptism is something we live – as we pray in the liturgy that we might spend the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance. We pray that we might live out our baptismal experience.
Additionally in the hymn we encounter in the last line an idea that is pervasive in Orthodox hymns – Christ in His baptism is sanctifying water. The idea is that the water is not washing away His sin (He is proclaimed to be sinless!) but rather water is receiving a sanctification from contact with the Lord in which the water of the Jordan becomes the spiritually cleansing force that it was always intended by the Creator to be. Water which only washes dirt away is the water of the fallen world. In Christ’s baptism, water is recreated and thus receives from the Lord of creation a sanctification that it has been missing since the fall of Adam and Eve. The water in which Christ is baptized becomes the water in which we are baptized – as we pray at each baptismal service when we bless the water before the baptism asking God to give the water in the font the grace of Jordan.
Here is an interesting idea: at the Great Flood (Genesis 6-9) God is said to drown the wickedness, violence and all sin of humanity. Is it possible that the waters which washed the world of sin through the Great Flood are at Christ’s baptism themselves being purified of sin? Is this the restoration which the incarnate Word of God brings about on earth?
While Christ is understood to be sanctifying the waters of the River Jordan, simultaneously He is using those waters to rid us and the world of sin. Consider the following hymns from the Prefeast of Theophany and from the Eve of Theophany:
1) “Christ comes to baptism; Christ approaches Jordan! Christ now buries our sins in the waters. Let us sing His praises with exceeding joy: He is the good One For He has been glorified!”
2) “Let the clouds rejoice! Let them drop down eternal gladness. Jesus Christ comes forth to drown the rivers of sin in the streams of Jordan, Granting enlightenment to all.”
The words of the hymns offer these vivid images: Christ burying our sins in the waters and drowning the rivers of sin in the streams of the Jordan. Long before His crucifixion Christ is ridding the world of our sin. This is a rich theology of salvation, not opposed to the Cross, but enriching our thoughts about redemption. Salvation is not merely a juridical dealing with sin, but is also a cleansing from sin. Perhaps the Christian West too narrowly focuses on one aspect of salvation, the Cross, and so loses the wealth of images offered to us by Scripture as to how God deals with the sin of the world. Christ takes on the sin of the world in order to forgive our sins: not only on the Cross but also in the River Jordan at His baptism. And this is true because He took on our sin at the incarnation when divinity united itself to the flesh of fallen, sinful humanity. This is ancient Christian theology, far richer and more diverse in the imagery used to understand the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ than many Christians imagine.
“Wishing to bury our sins with water in the streams of Jordan, Christ our God comes forth in His compassionate mercy, and us who had grown corrupt He forms anew through baptism.”
The above hymn from the Eve of Theophany reiterates that the very reason Christ the Incarnate God desired to come into the world was “to bury our sins with water in the steams of the Jordan.” Thus the events of Theophany are done for us and for our salvation. In Christ’s baptism, Christ who took on the sins of humanity when He became incarnate and united divinity to our sinful flesh, our sins are washed away. Thus in the incarnation and in His baptism, Christ is restoring fallen human nature by doing away with sin. Every aspect of Christ’s life, not just His crucifixion is about the salvation of all the people of the world. We then participate in this cleansing of sin when we are baptized in those holy waters over which the Church prays calling God to make the waters in the baptismal font those of the River Jordan.