The Baptism of the Lord – January 12, 2014

Each year on the Feast of the Epiphany St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs organizes an event in which the teenage boys of the parish dive into Spring Bayou to retrieve a Cross thrown there by the Archbishop. It seems that almost every year the weather is brutally cold for the event. I don’t know why the weather is so uncooperative on that date, but I can explain why the Greeks schedule the dive for the Cross on that date.

In the eastern Christian churches, including the Greek Orthodox Church, the Feast of the Epiphany is associated with the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. The Gospel reading that we heard today, on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, is read on Epiphany in the eastern churches. The annual dive into Spring Bayou is an event that originated in Greece, and was intended to be reminiscent of Jesus’ descent into the waters of the Jordan River. The Orthodox in Tarpon Springs added their own cultural twist to a feast about the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry: they prayed that their sponge diving fleet would be guided by the Spirit of God who guided Jesus.

In western Christianity (that’s us, the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church), the Feast of the Epiphany was re-interpreted as a result of the early medieval effort to evangelize the pagan peoples living in the rural areas of Europe. The visit of the magi to Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus was used as a catechetical lesson for those medieval pagans. They were encouraged to imitate the pagan magi who offered their worship to Jesus, the Savior.

Today, Epiphany is associated with the Magi for us western Christians while the eastern churches still celebrate the original form of Epiphany as a commemoration of the Lord’s Baptism. In the west, we added today’s feast (the Baptism of the Lord), to the calendar in order to retain the celebration of the first public manifestation of Jesus, the Savior sent by God.

Our celebration of the Lord’s baptism is slightly delayed, but it has the same meaning as the original Epiphany celebration. It is a feast about Christianity’s truth claims, namely, that Jesus was sent by God to reveal saving Truth to the world. The Gospel says that when “he came up from the water the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’.” (Matthew 3:16-17)

This divine proclamation of Jesus’ Sonship was made for the benefit of John the Baptist, the people in the crowd and all subsequent believers, including ourselves. The Gospel author wanted his readers to know why Jesus began his public ministry of teaching and healing: he was sent by God to do so. Truth claims, however, can be tricky things. There was an item in the news this week about some very popular diet supplements. Several large companies lost a suit against the Food and Drug Administration; the FDA had embargoed advertising by those companies until they could show clinical evidence that their claims of weight loss were accurate. Those companies have done no clinical studies, and remain prevented from making claims of weight loss as a result of using their products.

It’s one thing to make a claim, whether in advertising or in conversation; it’s quite another to be able to substantiate that claim. The Gospel’s account of the Baptism of the Lord was intended to be substantiation of the claim that Jesus is the Savior sent by God. However, the types of evidence that were acceptable in the ancient world are no longer understood by people in the western world. Truth, like almost everything else today, has become pluralistic.

For most people in our society truth is a very individualistic reality. What qualifies as truth for one person might not qualify as truth for another. Moreover, this indeterminacy of truth is seen as desirable; it is presumed to protect human freedom and individuality. The loudest voices objecting to this privatizing of truth are the religious and political fundamentalists. Calvinism, and its many related phenomena, hold vehemently to a notion of truth as objective and unchanging. However, that objective, universal and unchanging truth is an understanding of human nature as irremediably flawed and subject to damnation by God.

On one side of the discussion we have the opinion that universal truth is dangerous and a threat to one’s self-esteem. On the other side we have the opinion that human nature is undeserving of self-esteem. In the Catholic Church today, we face a distasteful choice: either we water down our truth claims to the point that anyone’s opinion about anything qualifies as saving truth, or we side with the moralistic fundamentalists who criticize Pope Francis for not spending enough time condemning abortion and homosexuals. We Catholics, both easterners and westerners, have to ask ourselves whether it is still possible to defend the notion of saving truth revealed by God. If truth is pluralistic, then there is no possibility of a Word of revelation from the One True God. If truth is pessimistic, then the there is no possibility of real salvation for human nature.

Fortunately, we are not limited to the choice between pessimism and the contemporary phenomenon of moralistic therapeutic deism. We are not required to surrender either our freedom or our individuality. It is still possible to make a claim for universal truth in a pluralistic society, but if we do so we should be prepared to have our claim rejected by many. The notion of universal, saving truth is unacceptable to some people, but the claim that truth is arrived at slowly and as a result of much effort is unacceptable to the majority of people.

The characteristic of Biblical faith that is so repugnant to so many people is that Biblical faith requires effort; it requires a life-long commitment to conversion as an on-going project. Sentimentalists, moralists, narcissists, fundamentalists, relativists and the superstitious are unanimous in their fear of on-going conversion because on-going conversion requires an assent to power beyond human control; it requires that we trust in the One True God more than we trust in ourselves. Furthermore, on-going conversion requires that the relationship between God and the believer is one that can, and does, change throughout the believer’s life.

There is an alternative to the dialectic set up by pluralism and fundamentalism; it is a path that leads in an unforeseen direction. It is the path followed by the magi, John the Baptist, Jesus and his disciples. It is the path described by the Scriptures as ‘fulfilling all righteousness.’ (Matthew 3:15) To ‘fulfill all righteousness’ is to spend a lifetime searching for a deeper appreciation, and a more profound grasp, of the truth of God’s Word.

In Catholicism, both eastern and western, we believe in One God who is not just a sentimental notion or an abstraction but a particular, real God who has a Name; we believe God revealed that Name to the Chosen People. We also believe that the One True God revealed God’s self in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We add to these beliefs one, necessary qualification: knowledge of God and God’s Word can only be gained incrementally over a lifetime.

John objected when Jesus came to be baptized by him. John said, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” (Matthew 3:14) John did not yet understand the saving truth sent by God. Jesus both understood, and was willing to allow John sufficient time to come to that understanding. Jesus said, “Go along with me now, for it is appropriate for us to fulfill all righteousness in this way.” (Matthew 3:15) Jesus knew that even the greatest of the prophets needed to be brought along slowly to grasp God’s plan of salvation. If John the Baptist needed a slow introduction to God’s Word, we can expect to require the same.

Can we allow ourselves to be taught by God? Can we risk being engaged in conversion as a life-long process? Can we learn to be patient with the limitations of our human nature? This is the path where the individuality of God intersects with our own individuality. This is the path where the Word of God is encountered by human freedom. This is the only path to truth. The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord focuses on the first proclamation of the saving truth sent by God. Will we celebrate this divine Revelation or hide from its light?