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Week 2: The Baptism of the Lord

Reflection by David R. Holeton

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"  Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented.”

Matt 3:13-15

Jesus’s baptism by John in the River Jordan is a fundamental image invoked at virtually every Christian baptism today. But Jesus’s baptism by John could not have been without embarrassment for the first Christians.  John, after all, was seen by many at that time as a rival to Jesus.   There were those who believed that John was God’s last word of revelation to humanity and there are groups who hold such beliefs to this day.  Thus, Jesus coming to John for baptism could have served to substantiate the claims of John’s followers.

The retention of the account of Jesus’s baptism in the New Testament is, perhaps, less important as a piece of biography than as a paradigm for every Christian baptism.  John’s baptism, like Christian baptism, was unique, was administered by another, involved a commitment to a new way of life and signified a self-identification with the in-breaking of God’s reign into the affairs of this world.  Most significant of all, however, is that at his baptism, Jesus was gifted with the Holy Spirit and the heavenly voice announced the special relationship between Jesus and his Father.

In their practice of baptism, Christians claim that God gifts the newly baptised with the Holy Spirit.  As at his baptism, Jesus became “Christos – the anointed one”, in baptism, each new Christian also becomes “Christos – anointed one”.  And as the particular Father/Son relationship was announced at Jordan, the newly baptised is incorporated into a filial relationship with God. Of the many initiation rituals which use water in the religions of the world, only Christians claim that God gifts the Holy Spirit in their baptism.

It should not be surprising that, for centuries, all Christians wished to baptise in “living” (that is copious, preferably flowing) water.  This generous use of water in baptism evokes its death-dealing as well as its life-giving qualities.  When water is used in this fashion, the claims Christians make of baptism become clear before the eyes of the community that celebrates this death-dealing and life-giving act: it is a participation in Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5; Col. 2:12); a washing away of sin (1Cor. 6:11); a new birth (Jn. 3:5); and the experience of salvation from the flood (1 Pt. 3:20-21).  

Over the centuries, however, most churches have become accustomed to using water in such a minimalist fashion that the powerful symbolic realities behind it are all but impossible to see.  The few drops that are sprinkled or poured on the candidate say little about death or new birth – either to the candidate or the community present.  As such, water’s symbolic qualities must be explained as they can no longer speak for themselves as they would if water were used generously and lavishly. 

Today, many churches are renewing their practice of baptism so that the baptismal symbols speak for themselves.  As we journey through Lent to Easter it is a good time for churches to reflect on their baptismal practices and to ask whether they speak clearly of the realities which lie behind them.

David Holeton is Professor of Liturgy teaching at the Charles University in Prague and is also priest-in-charge of the Old Catholic parish of St. Mary Magdalene on the banks of the Vltava.

Together we can make a difference:

  • Reflect on how you use water during baptisms in your own congregation – do you use as little as you can, or as much as you are able to? Does it allow for the symbolism of water to speak to you?

  • If the thought of using water more copiously in your prayer and worship experience makes you feel uncomfortable, it might be a good idea to find out which are the greatest water users where you live and compare their use of water with your congregation’s use of water in liturgical practices and other activities.

  • Instead of saving water during baptism, you can find out about other ways of improving the environmental and water footprint of your church. For example, Eco-congregations.org offers various modules with guidance and ideas for congregations on how to cut down on energy, recycle more, water and be generally a great deal kinder to the planet than we are already. The National Council of Churches in Denmark has identified 48 points for becoming a "green church". Remember that saving energy and reducing waste also protects our water resources.

Links to further information:

  • People use water for drinking, cooking and washing, but much more for producing things such as food, paper, cotton clothes, etc. The water footprint is an indicator of water use that looks at both direct and indirect water use of a consumer or producer. Learn more at www.waterfootprint.org

Photo: Children crossing the "waters of baptism" at the entrance of the chapel in the ecumenical center in Geneva. In the background the copy of a mosaic showing Jesus' baptism in the Jordan, given to the World Council of Churches by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinopel. (c) Peter Williams / WCC

Posted By: Ecumenical Water Network on Feb 22, 2010 03:00PM Add Comment