On one hand, immersion into the waters is a symbol of death, which recalls the death symbolism of the annihilating, destructive power of the ocean flood. The ancient mind perceived the ocean as a permanent threat to the cosmos, to the earth; it was the primeval flood that might submerge all life. The river could also assume this symbolic value for those who were immersed in it. But the flowing waters of the river are above all a symbol of life. The great rivers are the great givers of life. The
, too is—even today—a source of life for the surrounding region. Immersion in the water is about purification, about liberation from the filth of the past that burdens and distorts life—it is about beginning again, and that means it is about death and resurrection, about starting life over again anew… all of this will have to wait for Christian baptismal theology to be worked out explicitly, but the act of descending into the Jordan and coming up again out of the waters already implicitly contains this later development. Jordan
Part One, 16 Nazareth
Reflection – The profundity of today’s feast, the Baptism of the Lord, is hard to grasp. This event inaugurating Christ’s public life is little emphasized in the Western Christian tradition; in the East, it is much more prominent, as I mentioned yesterday.
Water is so symbolic on so many levels, that Christ plunging into the waters bears meaning on top of meaning on top of meaning.
He identifies himself with sinful humanity, for starters. The immersion ritual of Judaism practiced by John the Baptist was a sort of Jewish ‘altar call’ – come, you sinners, repent and believe in God. And there’s Jesus, the sinless one, taking his place among all the prostitutes and tax collectors and drunks and thieves.
Water is also life and death. No water, we die—and people living in a desert climate are acutely aware of that. Too much water, we die—sailors and fishermen know that all to well, too. So Christ who is God, the deathless one, is plunging into the whole human scene of life and death, our perilous contingent reality where we need in order to live, but our very needs make us so very vulnerable.
And water has all these cosmic associations—the waters of creation, of the flood, the whole sense of plunging into the depths of created reality. And water is chaos—the waters are the place of Leviathan, the sea monster who is the Jewish symbol of creation as chaotic and unmanageable. The world where it stops making sense, where the ways of God with his creation are unfathomable and frightening, as the book of Job so powerfully conveys.
Jesus goes there, too. Into the heart of all hearts of all created reality, into the very depths of life, death, suffering, chaos, weakness, helplessness, humility… into the waters plunges the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, God Himself become man for precisely this purpose.
I remember hearing an Orthodox priest preach a homily on this feast once, and saying very simply, “There are no monsters now.” The light of God has penetrated the outermost depths of the universe, and the deepest depths of the ocean, and the innermost depths of the human heart.Because of this, even in the face of the most horrible violence or atrocity, of suffering and death, we believe (with fear and trembling) and we assert (with shaky voices, perhaps) that God is bigger, that Christ is there, that the power of love is stronger than all the hate in the universe, that the light of God does shine in the darkness, and the darkness can not overpower it. That’s what the Baptism of the Lord means. Happy Feast Day.