The Gift of Water Baptism that Opens the Gates of Heaven
by Dom Prosper Gueranger, 1897
The thoughts of the Church, today [Jan 13th], are fixed on the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan, which is the second of the three Mysteries of the Epiphany. The Emmanuel manifested Himself to the Magi, after having shown Himself to the Shepherds; but this manifestation was made within the narrow space of a stable at Bethlehem, and the world knew nothing of it. In the Mystery of the Jordan, Christ manifested himself with greater publicity. His coming is proclaimed by the Precursor; the crowd, that is flocking to the river for Baptism, is witness of what happens; Jesus makes this the beginning of His public life. But who could worthily explain the glorious circumstances of this second Epiphany?
It resembles the first in this, that it is for the benefit and salvation of the human race. The Star has led the Magi to Christ; they had long waited for His coming, they had hoped for it; now, they believe. Faith in the Messias’ having come into the world is beginning to take root among the Gentiles. But faith is not sufficient for salvation; the stain of sin must be washed away by water. He that believeth and is baptised, shall be saved (St. Mark, xvi. 16). The time is come, then, for a new manifestation of the Son of God, whereby there shall be inaugurated the great remedy, which is to give to Faith the power of producing life eternal.
Now, the decrees of divine Wisdom had chosen Water as the instrument of this sublime regeneration of the human race. Hence, in the beginning of the world, we find the Spirit of God moving over the Waters (Gen. i. 2), in order that they might “even then conceive a principle of sanctifying power,” as the Church expresses it in her Office for Holy Saturday (The Blessing of the Font). But, before being called to fulfil the designs of God’s mercy, this element of Water had to be used by the divine justice for the chastisement of a sinful world. With the exception of one family, the whole human race perished, by the terrible judgment of God, in the Waters of the Deluge.
A fresh indication of the future supernatural power of this chosen element was given by the Dove, which Noe sent forth from the Ark; it returned to him, bearing in its beak an Olive-branch, the symbol that peace was given to the earth by its having been buried in Water. But, this was only the announcement of the mystery; its accomplishment was not to be for long ages to come.
Meanwhile, God spoke to His people by many events, which were figurative of the future Mystery of Baptism. Thus, for example, it was by passing through the waters of the Red Sea, that they entered into the Promised Land, and during the miraculous passage, a pillar of a cloud was seen covering both the Israelites, and the Waters, to which they owed their deliverance.
But, in order that Water should have the power to purify man from his sins, it was necessary that it should be brought in contact with the Sacred Body of the Incarnate God. The Eternal Father had sent His Son into the world, not only that He might be its Lawgiver, and Redeemer, and the Victim of its salvation–but that He might also be the Sanctifier of Water; and it was in this sacred element that He would divinely bear testimony to His being His Son, and manifest Him to the world a second time.
Jesus, therefore, being now thirty years of age, comes to the Jordan, a river already celebrated for the prophetic miracles which had been wrought in its waters. The Jewish people, roused by the preaching of John the Baptist, were flocking thither in order to receive a Baptism, which could, indeed, excite a sorrow for sin, but could not effect its forgiveness.
Our divine King approaches the river, not, of course, to receive sanctification, for He Himself is the author of all Justice–but to impart to Water the power of bringing forth, as the Church expresses the mystery, a new and heavenly progeny (The Blessing of the Font). He goes down into the stream, not, like Josue, to walk dry-shod through its bed, but to let its waters encompass Him, and receive from Him, both for itself and for the Waters of the whole earth, the sanctifying power which they would retain forever. The saintly Baptist places his trembling hand upon the sacred head of the Redeemer, and bends it beneath the water; the Sun of Justice vivifies this His creature; He imparts to it the glow of life-giving fruitfulness; and Water thus becomes the prolific source of supernaturnal life.
But, in this the commencement of a new creation, we look for the intervention of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. All Three are there. The heavens open; the Dove descends, not as a mere symbol, prophetic of some future grace, but as the sign of the actual presence of the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of love, who gives peace to men and changes their hearts. The Dove hovers above the head of Jesus, overshadowing, at the same time, the Humanity of the Incarnate Word and the water which bathed His sacred Body.
The manifestation is not complete; the Father’s voice is still to be heard speaking over the Water, and moving by its power the entire element throughout the earth. Then was fulfilled the prophecy of David: The Voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of majesty hath thundered. The Voice of the Lord breaketh cedars, (that is, the pride of the devils). The Voice of the Lord divideth the flame of fire, (that is, the anger of God). The Voice of the Lord shaketh the desert, and maketh the flood to dwell, (that is, announces a new Deluge, the Deluge of divine Mercy) (Ps. cviii. 3, 5, 7, 8, 10). And what says this Voice of the Father? This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased (St. Matth. iii. 17).
Thus was the Holiness of the Emmanuel manifested by the presence of the Dove and by the voice of the Father, as His kingly character had been previously manifested by the mute testimony of the Star. The mystery is accomplished, the Waters are invested with a spiritual purifying power, and Jesus comes from the Jordan and ascends the bank, raising up with Himself the world, regenerated and sanctified, with all its crimes and defilements drowned in the stream. Such is the interpretation and language of the Holy Fathers of the Church regarding this great event of our Lord’s Life.
Let us honour our Lord in this second Manifestation of His divinity, and thank Him, with the Church for His having given us both the Star of Faith which enlightens us, and the Water of Baptism which cleanses us from our iniquities. Let us lovingly appreciate the humility of our Jesus, who permits Himself to be weighed down by the hand of a mortal man, in order, as He says Himself, that He might fulfil all justice (St. Matth. iii. 15); for having taken on Himself the appearance of sin, it was requisite that He should bear its humiliation, that so He might raise us from our debasement. Let us thank Him for this grace of Baptism, which has opened to us the gates of the Church both of heaven and earth; and let us renew the engagements we made at the holy Font, for they were the terms on which we were regenerated to our new life in God.