By Christopher Zehnder
“I need to be baptized by you and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3.14)
Thus, John the Baptist, when Our Lord sought baptism from him. It is no wonder that John should shrink from this act; it so ill accorded with this man, whom John had proclaimed the one “whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” For John’s ministry had been toward sinners — a mere symbolic washing with water, an earnest of mercy and forgiveness. This One, however, would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
“I need to be baptized by you…”
John did not understand what Jesus was asking of him. It was not John’s baptism of repentance that Jesus sought. It was not even a washing away of sin, but the very washing of the waters. “He was baptized for our sake by John the Forerunner,” says a Byzantine prayer for the Feast of Theophany (January 6), “that He might sanctify the nature of water and favor us with rebirth from water and the Spirit.” By water are we cleansed; but before water could so cleanse, it had itself to be made clean. Jesus said it was “fitting” that John baptize him, for only thus could they “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).
No mere water, of course, can cleanse from sin. Even in baptism, water does not, of itself, without the Holy Spirit and even the sacramental form (the words spoken), wash away sin; nevertheless, the washing with water is not a mere occasion of the Holy Spirit’s working, an incidental convergence of events, one external, material, and merely symbolic, the other internal, spiritual, and truly efficacious. The water of baptism is the very instrument of the Holy Spirit’s cleansing. It is by means of the washing of water that the Holy Spirit vivifies the soul of man. In baptism, water effects man’s salvation.
It was thus that water had, in a sense, to be made to transcend its own nature. Yet, in transcending its nature, water does not cease to be water. Instead, it is only in virtue of its natural ability to cleanse the body that water can serve as an instrument to wash the soul of sin. For a sacrament is a sacred sign that effects what it signifies. The washing of water signifies the cleansing of the soul only by virtue of the fact that water can cleanse the body.
The baptism of Christ thus points to a profound aspect of the Christian mystery. The redemption does not touch only the spiritual order; it elevates the material world. Even the humblest of inanimate creatures attains a new meaning in Christ and performs a part in man’s redemption. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” but humble water does what the heavens cannot; it effects the glory of God: vivens homo, in St. Irenaeus’ words — “living man”; he who, by baptism gains that vision of God that is his very life.1
In this elevation of the creature of water we receive a foretaste of that for which the creation “waits with eager longing,” the “redemption of the sons of God” (Romans 8:18). This redemption, St. Paul says, involves not only man but all of creation, which “will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God”(Romans 8:21). In this redemption, water obtains a privileged place as the agent of man’s rebirth and thus of the universe’s restoration and sublimation. The sanctification of water is the prelude of the liberation of man and, through man, of the entire cosmos.
1. The passage in question comes from Book IV of Adversus Haereses: Gloria enim Dei vivens homo, vita autem hominis visio Dei. “For the Glory of God is living man, man’s life, however is the vision of God.”
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