W HEN JESUS WAS BAPTIZED A GREAT LIGHT FLASHED FROM THE WATER.

THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD- Chapter




Jesus

WHEN JESUS WAS BAPTIZED A GREAT LIGHT FLASHED FROM THE WATER SO THAT ALL WHO HAD COME THERE WERE AFRAID.These words appear in two ancient Latin manuscripts as part of the account of his baptism at the hand of John the Baptist. The Churches that used these copies of the New Testament considered this marvelous event to have marked the occasion. While it is obviously an early amplification of the more sober inspired text of St. Matthew, it is of considerable interest as a witness to the popular religious sentiment in the presence of the mysterious happenings surrounding our Lord's baptism. Believers appreciated that in the baptismal experience of Christ an important exchange took place between heaven and earth. The Evangelist has recorded that this was manifested by means of a striking and supernatural event.

And, having been baptized, Jesus came up from the water and behold the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. Behold a voice then came from the heavens saying, This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased (3: 16, 17).

The interpolated words I cited above immediate precede this passage, thus introducing the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus with the appearance of a powerful light. Somehow, its author understood, the baptism of Jesus had to do with divine illumination. This heavenly light is a symbol, that is to say, of the glory of God and of the fresh understanding accorded Jesus as a result of his baptism. Though not part of the canonical scriptures, then, these two manuscripts hand on an insight into the fruits of baptism that was inspired and soon became normative in the Church's teaching concerning this sacrament. It is the sacrament of illumination that bestows the light of saving faith on its recipient. So fundamental is this operation that the Greeks named this sacramental rite Photismos, "Illumination".

A fact that gives considerably more added interest to the lines added to Matthew's account by these Latin versions is that the same detail is described in an earlier Syriac version that has been preserved, thus pointing to a knowledge of this translation in the Latin speaking world at an early date. The earliest witness to this tradition that at Jesus' baptism there was a remarkable, divine light that appeared is the apocryphal account found in the Gospel of the Ebionites (cf. E. Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha I, 157). It was known to St. Justin, who wrote in the first part of the second century employing a more poetic expression to describe the miraculous light: "A fire was kindled in the Jordan", he wrote in the Dialogue with Tryphon (p. 88). St. Epiphanius, preserves this same tradition in different words, some 230 years later, thus showing the continuity of this tradition in the Greek world. He places it after, not before, the voice from heaven: "immediately a great light shone around the place (Panarion haer. xxx.xiii.7)." Most significantly Tatian, a disciple of St. Justin, who composed the Diatessaron, probably between 175-180 A.D. witnesses to this apocryphal detail. The passage in Tatian's work is referred to by various significant commentators, of whom the most distinguished is St. Ephrem whose commentary on the Diatessaron has been preserved in an Armenian translation as well as partially in the original Syriac. He interprets this light to be an indication for Satan that Jesus is truly the one he must tempt, for "he descends into the water not as one who needs pardon but as one who fulfills every need (Commentaire sur L'Evangile Concordant ou Diatessaron, tr. Louis Leloir, OSB Paris 1966, 95, 96)." Baptism, Ephrem goes on to comment, is an indication of Jesus' full humanity. He considers that several major developments result from this descent of Jesus into the water to be baptized by John. He fulfills the old law and at the same time puts an end to the baptism of John in principle. The resting of the Holy Spirit upon him signifies that Jesus receives the gift of prophecy and the priesthood. He is confirmed in his vocation and begins his active life by being led into the desert to be tempted. Because the Spirit descends on him at baptism, the baptism that he later establishes confers that same Holy Spirit. His own experience, we should note here, gives an indication of what his followers are to expect: after the consolation of the heavenly voice which identifies Jesus as the beloved servant of the Lord, he receives a divine strengthening and then there comes the testing in the desert. Each Christian by baptism receives a vocation that, sooner or later, leads him or her into a place of testing. God's call entails not only mission to be fulfilled but also a serious struggle with the forces of evil. However, such a person is sustained by the Spirit of God who accompanies him in fulfilling the divinely inspired mission entrusted to each believer. That baptism was a decisive moment for Jesus was appreciated not only by the orthodox, like St. Ephrem, but also by those who misinterpreted its significance. Early on there were some whose doctrine was known as Adoptionism who taught that at his baptism Jesus received the Spirit for the first time and only then became divine. Matthew and Luke both seem to have been aware of the possibility of thus misconstruing the significance of the descent of the Spirit on this occasion and altered Mark's text which had read that the Spirit descended into (eis) Jesus, to read upon (epi) Jesus.

Baptism, received from John, was a new beginning of our Lord's work on earth. It led to the public life and preaching that filled his last few years on earth. The sacrament of baptism which our Lord himself inaugurated initiates a new life for his followers. He put the matter very clearly and with an absolute emphasis: "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; He who does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16)." The effects of baptism do not cease with the reception of the sacrament; on the contrary, they are permanent. Not only does this rite bestow on the recipient a character that perdures throughout life and in eternity, it also confers the very Spirit of God himself who is ever at hand and ready to guide and stimulate throughout life. Thus the believing Christian lives from this sacrament; the spiritual life develops out of it. For the horizons opened by baptism are established by God himself, and consequently are infinite. We never outgrow the baptismal grace we receive for it is undying and undiminished by use. Rather, it grows within us as it is put into practice by our cooperation with the many actual graces that flow from it. Baptism was considered so important in the Church during the lifetime of the apostles that already in the N.T. there is a highly elaborated theology of this sacrament. [cf. the article in Sacramentum Mundi I.136ff s.v. Baptism for the following reflections.] In the Acts of the Apostles baptism is described as being conferred in the name of Jesus, which implies the candidate accepts to live as Jesus taught and lived. The Trinitarian formula is also employed as a further development. The fuller significance of this rite was explained by several of the other NT authors. St. Paul sees baptism as conferring a new form of existence which consists in a union with Christ. "Having been buried with him in baptism in which you have also risen with him through faith in the energy of God who raises him from the dead (Colossians 2: 12). He carries this conception still further in Ephesians where he states that "you are given life with Christ- by grace you have been saved- and are raised and seated in heavenly places in him (2:4, 5)." This being the reality already established at baptism the whole of the spiritual life is included in germ in this initial gift.

The task set for each of the baptized is to be conformed to this radically new self, to bring it to expression and actualize it in daily living. Obviously, the best we can hope to do is to approximate this high goal which requires a life of practice of virtue and of contemplative prayer. As Tertullian commented around the year 200, the simple act of descending in the water and the pronouncing of a brief form of words is the attaining of eternity (consecutio aeternitatis) (Traité du Baptême, 2.1 tr. R.F. Refoulé Paris 1952, 66). The newly baptized becomes a member of the Church with all its benefits. Above all, baptism gives the faithful access to the Eucharist. Furthermore, by these two sacraments he already belongs, in Christ, to the world where God is all in all; he is raised above time and anchored in God, substantially. There remain the passions and the radical selfishness rooted in the soul which require to be overcome, but the power to effect such a transformation is essentially given with the conferring of this sacrament. To live consistent with our baptism we must truly be dead to the world and resist those passions and attachments that bind us to it. At the same time, we are to live as citizens of heaven, with our desires and decisions oriented by the life and glory of God, so that all Christian life demands not only resistance to sin but the cultivation of an inner life of union with God in Christ. This was already the teaching of St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century, and was preached as well by St. Anselm in the eleventh.

Everyone begins to be a participant in this salvation by baptism. But if he wishes not to lose what he has freely received, he should take care to grow through his own labor of holy actions (Homily 8, PL 158: 638 cited in Dict. de. Spiritualité I. 1232).

Baptism then implies a conversion, a turning from selfish attachmentsand sin and entails adherence to the will of God in loving faith. Since monastic life entails a continuous, life- long conversion, it is a specific way of continuing the conversion initiated at baptismal and is a response to its grace and the commitment made at its reception. Indeed, there grew up in the Church the idea that monastic vows were assimilated to the vows made at baptism and in a manner partake of the sacramental nature. In fact, monastic profession was at first referred to by certain of the various names employed by the Greeks to designate baptism. The most common of these was renunciation, confession, promise and testament were other designations of profession taken over from the baptismal titles. Accordingly, profession came to be considered "another baptism"(cf. Michael Wawryk, Initio Monastica in Liturgia Byzantina, Roma 1968, p. 8, 9 whom I follow closely in this paragraph). In the practice of St. Basil and of St. Pachomius, a certain number of candidates for monastic life were catechumens so that monastic profession was intimately associated with the reception of the sacrament of initiation. Monastic vows were a renouncement of Satan and were modeled on the vows made at baptism. That this opinion was held at the very origins of monasticism appears from the Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius where, in a vision,Antony learned that all sins prior to monastic profession were forgiven him at the time of his promise to live permanently as a monk. Accordingly, the demons were not permitted to accuse him of any offenses commit ted before he made his profession (cf. Wawryk,op. cit., 13)!

There were further theological developments of this view of monastic profession. Because of the close bonds between monastic life and the passion of Christ, it was considered to possess theBecause of the close bonds between monastic life and the passion of Christ, it was considered to possess the same purifying power as baptism in the fourth century. St. Augustine, in a passage often cited from a letter to Paulinus, taught that the monastic vow is united with the sacrifice of the Eucharist and even partakes of its sacramental nature.

St. Augustine- Doctor A
ll that is offered to God is vowed, especially the oblation of the holy altar, in which sacrament is showed forth that great vow by which we vow always to remain in Christ, indeed in the framework of the body of Christ (Epistle 199.16 PL 33: 637A).

Later on Dionysius the Areopagite was to maintain that monastic profession was a sacrament in the full sense of that word, and placed it in the same class as the mass and baptism. (Wawryk, op. cit., 29) Theodore Studite would seem to have followed this teaching as the following statement from his Testament suggests. " I profess, moreover, that the monastic state is sublime and elevated and angelic that purges away all sins by the perfection of an absolute life when it is demands all the laws of asceticism of the divine and holy Basil (PG 99: 1816 C). However, a more careful study of his other references to profession suggest that he considers the likeness to baptism to be only analogous, not strictly speaking on the same level as a sacrament. This doctrine equating profes sion with baptism, to be sure, has not been accepted in its strict sense by the Church, yet there does remain a conviction that there is an intimate connection between baptism and profession as a monk. Father Odo Casel, in a study of the Byzantine tradition came to the conclusion that "the new decision to carry to its final completion this state of being baptized was the basis of a state in life different from that of the average Christian. Acceptance into this state was as it were a repetition of baptism, as a second and completed baptism (Wawryk, op. cit., 28)." The phrase "as it were" is important here, for it is in this analogous sense that this tradition is quite orthodox. In the West St. Thomas Aquinas accepted this position which he discovered to be already put forth in the Lives of the Fathers. Moreover, it found official formulation in the Code of Justinian (5th Novella) in Byzantium in the 6th century.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

To be in Christ as a result of baptism is our great privilege. By our monastic life, faithfully followed with fervor year by year, we try to become more worthy of this privilege. Life in Christ is perhaps the best way to conceive of our vocation. This understanding has the effect of personalizing the monastic way, orienting it directly to the Lord so that it becomes not merely a discipline and still less merely a matter of observances, but rather a union of hearts. This certainly was the way St. Bernard experienced the life he knew at Clairvaux and at Cîteaux in his formative years, before he became abbot. Jesus had equated obedience to his word with love: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments.... He who has my commandments and keeps them he is the one who loves me (14: 15, 21)." One of the chief commandments he imposed on all is that of receiving baptism. Another, by implication, is the reception of the Eucharist, which depends on baptism: "He who eats this bread will live forever (6:58)." By our fervent and faith-filled participation in the Eucharist daily may be strengthened in the love of our Lord so as to be able to adhere to his will in all things as we live out our baptism as monks. And may our prayer and our witness serve to encourage all those joined to us by faith and friendship to accompany us in faith as we travel along this path which, as St. Benedict says, leads us back to our Father in Heaven by the practice of a loving obedience.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger


[abbey crest]

© Abbey of the Genesee: All Rights Reserved

Home Page Index Page Archive Page