Today is the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism in the river Jordan. It’s a feast of great theological density that, among other things, celebrates the first “public” manifestation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity to Israel.
As the spotless Lamb of God wades into the muddy waters of the Jordan river, the voice of the Father thunders with joy over his beloved Son in whom He is well-pleased. St. Mark offers us the most graphic image of the heavens being “torn open” as the Spirit descends to anoint the Body of Jesus for his mission to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the jubilee “year of favor” from the Lord. The dove of peace Noah once released from the Ark has finally returned to herald the coming of the Prince of Peace into our violent world to be slain.
In the Eastern Church this feast is called the Theophany, the “manifestation of God.” Jesus, by stepping into the filthy river waters, shocks John by accepting the baptism of repentance. The Author of Life, the new Joshua, is soaked in the waters that empty into the Dead Sea in order to turn the Jordan river back on its course (Psalm 114:3; Jos. 4:18). Jesus reveals to us a God ready not only to pardon humanity’s sins, but to “take away” the “sins of the world” as a scapegoat Lamb (cf John 1:29). How fitting, then, that the Spirit’s first action after Jesus’ baptism is to drive Him into the desert to face the ancient Tempter of humanity (Lev. 16:21-22; Mark 1:12).
By stepping into the sin-laden waters of the Jordan, Jesus sanctifies all waters, rendering them capable of communicating the cleansing flood of God’s limitless mercy. The baptistry in the 6th century A.D Lateran basilica in Rome has an inscription that extols the power of these waters in which we have been baptized:
Here is born in Spirit-soaked fertility
a brood destined for another City,
begotten by God’s blowing
and borne upon this torrent
by the Church, their virgin mother.
Reborn in these depths they reach for heaven’s realm,
the born-but-once unknown by felicity.
This spring is life that floods the world,
the wounds of Christ its awesome source.
Sinner, sink beneath this sacred surf
that swallows age and spits up youth.
Sinner, here scour sin away down to innocence,
for they know no enmity who are by
one font, one Spirit, one faith made one.
Sinner, shudder not at sin’s kind and number,
for those born here are holy.
Every time you dip your fingers in the holy water font to receive a fresh splash of grace, remember how they first got holy.
During the Mass of the Baptism of the Lord in 2015, my wife Patti, who was then the music director at St. James Major parish in New Orleans, sang a duet of the Negro spiritual, Wade in the Water, with local musical artist Cornelius “CC” Celestine. I caught them rehearsing before Mass in the church stairwell, and quickly pressed record on my phone. One member of that parish once said to her, “You don’t sing with your vocal chords, you sing with your soul.” And an African American woman, who is also a jazz, blues and gospel singer, once told her, “Every time you sing the ‘Lamb of God,’ I am converted all over again.” That is her gift, and I try to teach like she sings. When she finds a parish to serve in again, they will discover it as well.