"The Baptism of Jesus"
The Episcopal Church devotes the first Sunday after the Epiphany to the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John. Years A, B, and C all include a variation of Jesus’ baptism.
Jesus' baptism by John — or rather, John the Baptist's ministry prior to Jesus' arrival — was not the first time baptism occurred in the ancient world.
"Baptism" derives from the Greek words bapto, baptizo, or baptein, which imply to wash, immerse, or dip. Additionally, it can indicate "to overwhelm," as in suffering. Given that the Gospels were written in Greek, the authors undoubtedly intended for their audiences to recall that Christ's baptism in water was followed by his baptism in suffering on the cross. "Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" Jesus asked James and John, alluding to his death. (10:38) (Mk 10:38).
Baptisms, or ritual baths or washings, were not uncommon in the ancient world. The ancient Greeks dedicated new ships to the sea deity Poseidon by pouring water over them. (The Romans adopted a similar practice, dedicating ships to Neptune.)
Additionally, in ancient Greece, the oracle of Trophonion was associated with a ritual bath that was associated with both seeking immortality and obtaining insight from the gods.
The ancient Babylonians and the ancient Egyptians, whose religion was centered on death and the River Nile, both employed baptism for purification. As such, it was not unusual for them to include ritual washing as part of their preparations for the dead — as was done in the narrative of their god, Osiris.
The importance of ritual washing and purification was demonstrated in Jewish culture by the presence of mikvahs outside the ancient Temple and several synagogues. These ancient ritual baths, many of which remain in Israel today, were meant to cleanse oneself prior to approaching God. According to Midrash, the writings of the Jewish sages, Adam and Eve spent days standing in the rivers that spilled out of Paradise following their expulsion from Eden as a kind of penance. Jews in Israel and abroad continue to construct and use modern mikvahs.
In Jesus' time, it was considered impure to approach God while suffering from a disease (leprosy or skin rashes), touching a body, or handling certain insects or lizards.
Simple washing rituals were also a part of daily life during Jesus' time, as evidenced by the Gospel accounts of the wedding at Cana (Jesus' first miracle in John's Gospel) — "Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding 20 to 30 gallons (Jn 2:6) — and Matthew: "Why do your disciples violate the elders' tradition?" They do not wash their hands after meals" (15:2).
Baptism was also a requirement for conversion to Judaism throughout the Temple's era. Converts went through a period of preparation and were immersed in flowing water and given a new name, generally on the feast of Passover. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the baptism aimed to wash them of the taint of idolatry.
While John the Baptist was not an Essene, he shared several characteristics with this group of men who went into the desert to purify themselves for the end times. They lived in the Judean desert, close to the Qumran caves. Fasting and ritual bathing for the purpose of repentance were a part of their way of life.
When John arrived on the scene, he also preached "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mk 1:4). His baptism entailed confessing his sins and being washed with water, which was often flowing in the Jordan.
According to Fr. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a Dominican priest and New Testament scholar, "Clearly, John was envisioning a profound transformation of the individual along the lines of one of his predecessors..."
That forerunner was the priest-prophet Ezekiel, who lived 600 years before Christ and recorded God's promise to Israel: "I will pour clean water on you to purify you from all your impurities, and I will cleanse you from all your idols." I will implant a new heart and spirit within you, removing your bodies' stone hearts and replacing them with natural ones. I will infuse you with my spirit" (36:25-27).
Naturally, all of these washings and baptisms served as precursors to the actual baptism "with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Mt 3:11) that came to us via Jesus Christ.
The sacrament of baptism was instituted by Christ for the life of the church.
Sacraments have always been communal events. Luke sets the scene this Sunday of Jesus’ Baptism by first describing the crowd: “The people were filled with expectation.”
Everything we understand about sacraments tells us that it was the presence of the crowd—their energy and anticipation for what was to unfold, the prayers and wonderings held fervently in each heart—that allowed the flow of God’s grace to be made manifest in Jesus. This is what it means to be "church" - to be present with and for one another, to lift each other, hold one another and pray together.
When we are baptized, it encourages us to remember that we are a part of the entire family of Christ. It is the beginning of a close personal relationship with God, but it is not the conclusion of the story. By virtue of our baptism, we are called to reach out to other members of our congregation and those outside the church's borders. Baptism not only draws us closer to God, but it also sends us out into the world to care for the people of God all around the world. We are called to something greater than ourselves by our baptism.
Following this Sunday's celebration of The Lord's Baptism, a period of time in the liturgical calendar known as Ordinary Time will begin. Ordinary Time is the period during which we are led chronologically through Jesus' public ministry, through His entry into Jerusalem, and finally His death and resurrection; an event for which we interrupt the cycle of Ordinary Time to celebrate during the Easter season.
This weekend, we renew our Baptismal Covenant and recall Christ's gift of salvation to us all.
Blessings in Christ,