Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him.
When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)
It is the events surrounding the baptism of Jesus (the Theophany) which help us understand why the birth of Jesus is significant to us. For it is only after His baptism that Christ begins His public ministry. Only after His baptism does Jesus begin proclaiming the Gospel and doing the miracles which we know about and which we proclaim in our Sunday lectionary.
The importance of Theophany is also shown to us in that while only two of the four evangelists tell us anything about the birth of Jesus, all 4 evangelists tell us about the baptism of Christ. In modern popular thinking, Christmas is the big event and feast, whereas in the Church it is the Theophany of Christ which reveals the importance of Christ’s birth. Popular piety does not always mirror theology and sometimes popular piety looms larger than life itself.
As has already been stated, Theophany is significant because it marks the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel in fact begins with the appearance of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. This is the beginning of the Gospel for Mark, not Christ’s Nativity.
At Christ’s baptism, God is beginning to unveil His mysterious plan for the world. In Jesus encountering God in the flesh – divining and humanity united, Creator and creation sharing a common life. When Jesus steps into the River Jordan, this is God’s son entering into the waters, but it is also the incarnate God entering into the water which God created at the beginning of the world as described in Genesis 1.
God creates the world and the waters of the world, and then God enters into these same waters and is immersed in them. This is the great mystery of Theophany. Jesus Christ reveals God to us. He reveals God’s plan for the world.
The river waters of the Jordan are not only washing God in the flesh, they encompass God as Jesus is immersed in the waters. He who created the waters allows Himself to be submersed beneath the waters. There is no such place in the entire cosmos where God cannot enter, including Hades, the place of the dead. In the River Jordan Jesus shows that God can disappear beneath the waters, be buried in the waters and yet still be both alive and be God. He is preparing us for what will happen to Him in his burial.
His very presence in the world reveals to us that God is doing the unexpected. God is uniting Himself to us humans. God is making it possible for us to share in the divine life, to experience holiness. God is showing that the physical world which He created is capable of containing God and revealing God to us. In the waters of the River Jordan we learn who Jesus really is.
And we learn that the physical things can be sanctified and made holy. The physical world is revealed as being capable of being spiritualized, as being the very means for us to encounter God. Christ steps into the Jordan River and in touching the water, Christ makes the water a means for us to experience holiness, to experience God. How is this possible? Because God made water in the beginning to be a means to reveal Himself to us. God is showing us what creation is capable of being. And God is showing us we can encounter Him in and through the creation God made as a gift for us. God shows us that even the watery depths of the earth are a place where God abides and where humans can still be united to God.
Matter, elements, the physical world are not merely physical. The physical without the spiritual is dead, inert, void of meaning. Christ reveals that all the physical world belongs to God is capable of life because it is spiritual as well. Indeed when science wants to study the world as if there is no God, then the world of matter is devoid of God, it is lifeless. In the Gospel we learn that matter, the physical world has as spiritual dimension if we care to find it.
And so we see the physical world, God’s creation becomes life giving in Christ. Not only life giving, but giving eternal life. And we see in Christ that not only the physical world is capable to being touched by God and made holy, but we ourselves as humans are able to be holy – to be united to God.
When we baptize people into Christ, we use the physical tools given to us by God – water and holy oil – to convey life to them, to show that we humans are not merely physical, material beings – we are fully capable of bearing life and even giving life, we are made to be united to God. The nature of water to give a new birth was revealed in baptism.
A final point, sometimes we Orthodox major on the minor in so many ways surrounding feasts. The prayer of the blessing of water says:
And grant unto all them that touch it, and partake of it, and anoint themselves with it, sanctification, health, cleansing and blessing.
It doesn’t say that we should take it home and venerate it as if it is some holy object worthy of veneration. We are not to treat it as if it is imbued with nuclear power. We are to use it to bless ourselves and encounter God. It’s purpose is to give us an experience of God. The holiness of this water is that it means God is present with us. So use it to bless yourselves and your homes and your gardens, so that the God who showed us the nature of water in baptism will be present with you in your person and in your home. God enters our life not to give us “sacred objects” to venerate, but to transfigure us into beings who are united to Him.