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.