St Gregory the Theologian: Oration 39 (part 3)

Finally St Gregory comes to our Lord’s baptism in the Jordan River. His actual discussion of the event is brief. I for one would have preferred for the bishop to have dwelt on the subject at greater length and depth; but he is also aware that the celebration of tomorrow’s feast will be full and long, including as it will the baptism of his catechumens. A preacher can only say so much in one sermon.

Jesus comes to John for baptism. Perhaps he comes to sanctify the baptizer, Gregory states, but most certainly he comes “to bury the old Adam in the water” (39.15). The salvific work of Christ was not accomplished in an instant by the mere fact of Incarnation in the womb of his mother. It embraces the entirety of our Lord’s life, culminating in his death on Calvary. The sinless One submits to a baptism meant for sinners in order to re-create sinners and open the way to the Kingdom. But then Gregory adds the following sentence: “but before these things and for the sake of these things to sanctify the Jordan” (39.15). He does not elaborate upon these mysterious words, nor is the sanctification of the Jordan something plainly stated in the gospel narrative. Why is this important? Where else in the Father is the sanctification of the waters discussed? I have often wondered about this since reading Alexander Schmemann’s reflections on holy baptism way back in seminary:

What is important for us, however, is that the baptismal water represents the matter of the cosmos, the world as life of man. And its blessing at the beginning of the baptismal rite acquires thus a truly cosmic and redemptive significance. God created the world and blessed it and gave it to man as his food and life, as the means of communion with Him. The blessing of water signifies the return or redemption of matter to this initial and essential meaning. By accepting the baptism of John, Christ sanctified the water—made it the water of purification and reconciliation with God. It was then, as Christ was coming out of the water, that the Epiphany—the new and redemptive manifestation of God—took place, and the Spirit of God, who at the beginning of creation “moved upon the face of the waters,” made water—that is, the world—again into what He made it at the beginning. (For the Life of the World, pp. 72-73)

To bless the waters is to restore creation to its original purpose—communion with God. “In faith,” Fr Schmemann writes, “the whole world becomes the sacrament of His presence, the means of life in Him. And water, the image and presence of the world, is truly the image and presence of Christ” (p. 74). Or as my good friend Fr Stephen Freeman has written, “The Kingdom of God has come in Christ and the whole world is a sacrament.” Ours is a “one-storey universe.” If we would but open our eyes, we would see the divine light everywhere present.  I do not know if this is what St Gregory had in mind when he spoke of the sanctification of the waters of the Jordan. In any case, I need to go back and read more Schmemann and Freeman.

John is hesitant to baptize Jesus, but Jesus insists. “‘Let it be so now,'” Gregory explains, quoting the words of Christ. “It is the divine plan” (Or.39.15). And so the Baptist submits and baptizes the New Adam. “But Jesus comes up again out of the water,” St Gregory proclaims. “For he carries up with himself the world and ‘sees the heavens opened’ which Adam closed for himself and for those after him as he also closed paradise by the flaming sword” (39.16). The baptism of Christ in the Jordan thus anticipates his own baptism into death, his descent into Hades, and the glorification of the cosmos.

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5 Responses to St Gregory the Theologian: Oration 39 (part 3)

  1. Pr. Jay Denne says:

    I’m reading through an excellent analysis of Schmemann in the book “Theologia Prima” by David Fagerberg. If I am understanding correctly, Schmemann noted that among the Early Church Fathers, the focus was on the sacramental nature of the Church and the world, and how the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, etc. affected the Church and world. The Church is “a sacrament in the cosmic sense because she manifests in ‘this world’ the genuine world of God, as he first created it. . . She is a sacrament in the eschatological dimension because the original world of God’s creation, revealed by the Church, has already been saved in Christ.” (quoting from Schememann’s book “The Eucharist”). Schememann then contrasts this approach with the later scholastic approach, which focused on the cultic aspects of the sacraments – questions as to how the sacraments work, when they are valid, etc. Shememann’s analysis resonates with me because I’ve always been a bit disturbed by scholastic pronouncements as to which sacraments are valid and which ones are not. Maybe I’m just biased because as a Lutheran pastor I appreciate the more gracious approach of Eastern Orthodoxy toward our sacramental rites (we know where the Church is, but we do not know where it is not) compared to the Catholic approach which declares that what I do invalid.

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Pr Denne, thanks for the reference to Fagerberg’s book. It looks like a title I will definitely need to borrow through ILL, if that’s possible. It’s definitely not a title I’ll be buying any time soon–not at $400.00 a pop! Egads!

    I’m curious why you think Orthodoxy is more “gracious” toward Lutheran sacraments than the Catholic Church. The Catholic category of invalidity doesn’t say anything, one way or another, about God’s activity or presence in Protestant sacraments; it just says that a specific sacramental action hasn’t been performed according to the requisite criteria that would justify ecclesial recognition. Lutherans make those kinds of judgments, too. Luther was hardly generous about the Suppers celebrated within the Reformed Churches.

    Orthodoxy, on the other hand, avoids the language of validity. What they want to know is whether a given community is genuinely Orthodox. If you one day were to convert to Orthodoxy, depending on what jurisdiction you were to approach, you might well be required to be (re-)baptized. You would certainly be required to be ordained, if you wanted to function within the Church in priestly service. Even if you were received by Christmation, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Orthodoxy recognizes your baptism as valid. When it comes to baptism, Catholicism is definitely more generous than Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is pretty messy on the question of sacraments outside the canonical boundaries of the Orthodox Church. Don’t let the “we know where the Church is, we don’t know where the Church isn’t” approach fool you. This is the approach I myself prefer; but there are plenty of others who are much more rigorous about non-Orthodox sacraments.

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  3. Pr. Jay Denne says:

    Fr. Kimel – I’m not sure why the cost of a copy of the Fagerberg book is so high on Amazon. It was recently made available for purchase on Kindle, so if you have one of those, you can get it for $25. Another alternative is the Mundelein Seminary bookstore – I was there recently and picked up a copy for around $20, and they still had several copies left.
    Thanks for the clarification about how Catholicism and Orthodoxy view those outside of their respective communions. Instead of saying “more gracious” I should have said that I have thought the Orthodox position on non-Orthodox sacraments to be less presumptuous. It makes more sense to me for a church to use the economia approach when looking at sacramental actions outside of their visible boundaries, instead of issuing blanket statements about others via dogmatic pronouncents. Admittedly, I’m probably jaundiced due to seeing Catholics use Apostolicae Curae as a club by Catholics to beat Protestants over the head during discussions on various internet forums.

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  4. Greg DeLassus says:

    Dear Fr. Kimel,
    I am enjoying these reflections immensely. Good luck on the new blog, and keep up the good work.

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  5. elijahmaria says:

    Thank you for the expansion of your original comment on Catholic use of valid and licit, Pr. Denne, The Lutheran-Catholic situation is very delicate and there’s been plenty of hard and hurt feelings in both the long and short run. I follow the teachings of the papal Church but I also understand your distress. I have had more than my fair share of opportunities to lower the conversational boom on reformed and evangelical faithful, and I’ve taken those shots now and then in the face of what I thought to be unwarranted recalcitrance…heh. Probably not my best hours….In Christ, Mary

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