The Baptism of the Lord

Grace has been given mystically to those who have been baptized into Christ; and it becomes active within them to the extend that they actively observe the commandments.  – St. Mark the Ascetic, #61 of No Righteousness by Works

Everyone baptized in the orthodox manner has received mystically the fulness of grace; but he becomes conscious of this grace only to the extent that he actively observes the commandments. – St. Mark the Ascetic, #92 of No Righteousness by Works

Yesterday was Baptism of the Lord Sunday.  On it, churches around the world celebrated the mystery that Christ himself was baptized.  And it is a mystery, because some of our popular explanations of baptism offer no explanation of why Jesus would need to be baptized.  He had no sins of his own to wash away.  It was not necessary for him to be baptized as a sign of repentance.  He wasn’t baptized as a sign that he was part of God’s covenant community – that sign for him was still circumcision.   Here was the One through whom the world was created, stooping to be covered in the water of his creation. But why?  Even John the Baptist tried to turn him away, but Jesus responded, “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15).  Fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness?  What does this mean? Why was Jesus baptized?

Many of the church fathers asked the same question.  One answer they suggested is that Jesus was baptized that he might sanctify the waters.  For example, Hilary of Potiers says, “He had no need for baptism.  Rather, through him the cleansing act was sanctified to become the waters of our immersion.”  By undergoing baptism, Jesus made all baptismal waters holy.  They have power, as though he deposited something in the water.  But that power is beyond our understanding; as Mark says, “grace has been given mystically to those who have been baptized into Christ.”

For St. Mark the Ascetic, God actually does something through the baptism we receive in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But Mark tells us that the grace conferred by baptism comes alive through faith and obedience.  To perceive the power of baptism, one must live into one’s baptismal identity through obedience and submission to God. 

And that’s where Jesus’ baptism connects directly to our own lives.  We have been baptized into Christ.  United with him in baptism, the words that the Father spoke over him are true of us as well.  We are God’s children, and we are loved.  That is our starting point.  As we move forward from that point, seeking the obedience that makes evident our identity baptism, Jesus himself provides the example of perfect obedience. And that means that to live into our baptismal identity is to embrace the cross and be united with Christ not only in his life, but in his death.  It is by taking up our cross that the reality of baptismal grace becomes evident and active in our lives.  May God grant us the strength to so live the grace we’ve received.

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