Notes on Luke’s account of the Baptism of our Lord

There are several things to recognize in the account in the Gospel According to St Luke of Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan. I’ll take note of what I’ve found, doing so in no particular order. Here is the passage (according to the BCP lectionary):

As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”

1. One is how appropriate this moment in Scripture is during the celebration of Epiphany. The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “appearance”. With his baptism in the River Jordan, Jesus “appeared to the world and manifested Himself as the Messiah, the Son of God, one of the Holy Trinity” (T. Hopko, The Winter Pascha, ch 31). Epiphany in the West begins with the liturgical meditation upon the role that the Star of Light plays in guiding us to the truth of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth — a guiding that is modeled by the Wise Men who bring gifts to the new King. Their recognition of Christ’s Kingship represents the recognition of Christ’s reality as for all peoples, all nations, all souls. Christ’s reality is a universal reality. In each of the Gospel accounts, Christ’s public ministry began. It “showed itself”. The nature of his mission was disclosed for the first time: to the world, but also (perhaps) to himself.

2. The baptism that all four Evangelists chronicle is not a Christian baptism. Rather, the nature of this baptism is that of a Jewish rite “signifying purification or consecration” (“Baptism”, Jewish Encyclopedia). It was an ascetical act “to form a part of holy living and to prepare for the attainment of a closer communion with God”. To say that the baptized person is now “illuminated” meant to a Jew that he or she “now belongs to Israel, the people beloved of God”. This Jewish rite was an “absolutely necessary condition to be fulfilled” by a person and was called a “seal”. In early Jewish literature, never canonical or binding for Christians, Adam and Eve “stood up to the neck in the water, fasting and doing penance—Adam in the Jordan for forty days, Eve in the Tigris for thirty-seven days”. In early Jewish homiletical tradition, the repentance of Israel issues in “the spirit of God (hovering like a bird with outstretched wings), manifested in the spirit of the Messiah, will come [or “the Holy One, blessed be He! will spread His wings and bestow His grace”] upon Israel”, and baptism was required to stand in the presence of God. Unlike Christian baptism, Jewish baptism was repeatable. Thus it was more existential than ontological. For some Jews, daily baptism was required “in order to pronounce the name of God in prayer in perfect purity”. Baptism cleansed from the “impurity of idolatry”: Talmudic commentary understood Pharaoh’s daughter’s bathing in the Nile to have been for this purpose. The theology of baptism in general was derived not primarily from biblical Law but through practice. By way of accrued symbolism, the baptism restored the unclean to an “original state of a new-born ‘little child'”, and the baptized were “suddenly brought from darkness into light” (for all quotes, ibid.)

3. Place matters: the River Jordan itself has a very significant biblical history. It may easily be understood as “sacred space”. The Jordan valley was “well watered everywhere like the garden of the LORD” (Gen 13.10). Moses, in leading the children of Israel to the Promised Land, never crossed the River Jordan. This River was a boundary to the Promised Land — “the place where God would dwell with His people providing them with the endless blessings of His presence” (Hopko, ch 33). Moses instead died before crossing this boundary. This might be symbolically understood that for us the Law is necessary to salvation, but not itself sufficient. The Law is not enough. It was Moses’ successor, Joshua (which literally means Savior, and is the Hebrew form of the Greek word Jesus) who leads the children of Israel to the Promised Land. Joshua’s crossing issued in a parting of the waters in the presence of God’s people, including the Ark of the Covenant. This allowed the people of God to pass through into their place of final destination. The Lord commanded Joshua to remove twelve stones from the Jordan, where the priests stood, and pile them together for an eternal memorial of this miracle given by the Lord (Josh 1-4). Additionally, The Jordan was crossed by Elijah and Elisha on dry ground (2 Kings 2:8, 2:14). God thrived through Elisha performing two other miracles at the Jordan: God healed Naaman by having him bathe in its waters, and he made the axe head of one of the “children of the prophets” float, by throwing a piece of wood into the water (2  Kings 5:14; 6:6). Thus the River Jordan is a “sacred space” because it is part of the “living memory” of Israel. That Christ washed in these waters means that we wash in these waters through our baptism, the action of which is His. We cannot just wash in “any old river” and be clean; God says no. “Only through the Jordan do we enter into the land of the living, the promised land of God’s kingdom” (Hopko, ch 33). The waters of the Jordan sanctify us forever.

trinity4. Continuing the theme of “appearance” and “manifestation” from paragraph 1, this event manifests for the first time the mystery of Holy Trinity. This is the true nature of reality. The true nature of reality is triune — that is, God is Holy Trinity. This is a truly great mystery. Triunity was hinted at dimly and in shadows through the previous covenants with Israel. Blessed Mary, Our Lady, surely had some glimpse of triune reality in her life lived as a Jewish woman (soaked in Scripture), her “Yes” to God through the Annunciation by Gabriel, and her giving birth, nurturing, and pondering in her heart the life of her son, Jesus of Nazareth. We note that with the public emergence and manifestation of Christ as Messiah comes the emergence of the Holy Spirit as a “unique divine person” (Hopko, ch 32). We can observe the pattern by which Jesus himself recognized triune nature. Amid the communal rite of baptism and a widely shared sense of “expectation” and discernment, heaven opened: God the Father “spoke” to Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form as a dove, descended upon him. This pattern involves prayer, experience, reflection, sacred space, and a corporate (rather than individual) basis for life. (This pattern is repeated and retrieved by the apostles in the Lukan narrative of Pentecost; and here St Luke more explicitly associates the Holy Spirit with the sense of fire to which John the Baptist alludes.) Thus we can learn from Christ: for how Jesus realizes the triune nature of reality should be a model for how we realize triune nature.

5. Luke’s narrative emphasizes that Christ is the full and final revelation of God. This happens through Luke’s details: What is left out of the the Gospel reading (vv. 19-20) is that Herod imprisoned John. Christ’s anointing (or recognition of triune reality and his own true nature as God the Son) follows after the ministry of John the Baptist rather than overlaps it (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Series, vol 3, p. 67). Furthermore, unlike the Markan and Matthean accounts of the Baptism of our Lord, the Lukan account shifts all attention to Jesus. Here there is no sense that John baptized Jesus; Luke “virtually removes John from the scene” (ibid, p. 71).  He extends the distance between John’s baptism and Jesus. Rather, it seems as if the baptism, and triune anointing, occurs amid a crowd of Jewish people. All of this reinforces two conclusions: John the Baptist is the final prophet of the Old Testament, and Jesus Christ (although continuous in many respects with all of the biblical history of the children of Israel) is a unique and singular emergence to the world of God’s nature and God’s identity.

transfiguration6. In addition to comparing this moment to Pentecost, we can compare this moment to the Transfiguration story (Lk 9.28-36). In both cases, we the readers are given access to an “empowerment and declaration that takes place between God and Jesus in the communication that is prayer” (Johnson, p. 71). In both cases, what happens is a mix of public and private, of objective reality and subjective recognition. Particularly in the baptism narrative, we are somehow privy to the thoughts of Christ. This is the first such access we have in Luke. Luke’s first words from the mouth of Jesus are in the temple as a boy of age 12. But here (as in the Lukan Transfiguration narrative)  he does not even speak. He prays, he listens, he experiences. In all of this, he discloses his true nature for others to witness and behold.

7. From Luke there is a strong emphasis on the physical nature of the Holy Spirit. The dove was “in bodily form, as a dove”. It is useful to recall biblical precedents for “structural similarity” (Johnson, 71). Such precedents include the Annunciation (1.35) and the angelic song (2.14) from the infancy narrative. In the Annunciation, the Spirit “comes down” and reveals the name of God; what’s more, this power will “overshadow” Mary. This brings to mind the “hovering” of God’s spirit over the face of the deep in Genesis 1.2, and points again to the Transfiguration narrative, where “a cloud came and overshadowed” Peter, James, and John. And provocatively, Luke’s emphasis on the physical nature the Holy Spirit as a dove calls to mind the dove over the waters in Genesis 8.8 at the end of the flood. There, it was the dove sent by Noah that acted as an agent of completion to the event of the flood. Through the dove, Noah and the rest on the Ark were restored to right relationship with creation. All was well again. Through the dove came a uniting, a reconciling, a harmonizing with creation. And the action of the dove issued in God’s speaking to Noah (which parallels God’s speaking to Jesus), God’s articulation of his covenant with all peoples, a visible disclosure (the rainbow), and a sense of mission for Noah (“be fruitful and multiply”). When we recall that following all Gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus is the commencing of Christ’s public ministry, his own mission becomes a fulfillment of the promise God made to Noah.

emmaus8. Concluding thoughts. Any reflection upon Scripture is best served through the lens of ascetical theology. That lens issues in the question: how does this passage impinge on my own life of prayer. Another way to say that is to ask, what can I take from this to help me be a better disciple of Christ, to “delight in his will and walk in his ways”?

The baptism of our Lord in the River Jordan demonstrates to us that prayer life rooted in Christ is trinitarian. When we rooted our prayer life in Christ, we are at the River Jordan with him, and he for us. The way the ancient Jewish people understood baptism (as a daily event) is the way Christians understand prayer (a daily, and even ongoing and continuous happening).

Christian prayer life is a matter of discernment, colloquy, and purification. We discern through patient reflection and contemplation given the facts, situations, and challenges our life poses to us. We colloquy through conversation with God and by opening ourselves to listening to God’s disclosure. We purify through our receiving of the Sacraments, particularly Penance and Eucharist, which restore the holiness of our Baptism and seals the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit throughout our prayer.

As we discern, colloquy and purify we shouldn’t feel the necessity to be able to come to words about our experiences — that is, what are sensing God’s will might be. We can take solace that Christ didn’t immediately come to terms, either. What does give us solace is that our prayer in Christ washes away our separation from him, and from the true nature of reality.

When we root our prayer life in Christ, we acknowledge the words of God the Father, that Jesus is his beloved Son. This acknowledging is praise to God the Father, praise that Christ mediates. Christ-centered prayer likewise gives praise to the Holy Spirit, not a mere afterthought or decoration on this moment, but rather a real, physical, personal Being that unites our biblical imagination with the Annunciation, the Transfiguration, Pentecost, and the covenant and mission that issued from the end of the Flood. Thus Christian prayer is modeled by Christ’s baptism: an act of Christian prayer is an event of Trinity; a life of Christian prayer is a journey to the realization of Trinity. In reuniting with triune reality through prayer in Christ, we become reconciled to God’s creation. And it begins as Christ modeled and thus how St Benedict began his rule: we must listen.