The thoughts of the Church today are fixed on the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan, which is the second of the three Mysteries of the Epiphany. The Emmanuel manifested himself to the Magi after having shown himself to the Shepherds; but this manifestation was made within the narrow space of a stable at Bethlehem, and the world knew nothing of it. In the Mystery of the Jordan, Christ manifested himself with greater publicity. His coming is proclaimed by the Precursor; the crowd that is flocking to the river for Baptism is witness of what happens; Jesus makes this the beginning of his public life. But who could worthily explain the glorious circumstances of this second Epiphany?
It resembles the first in this, that it is for the benefit and salvation of the human race. The Star has led the Magi to Christ; they had long waited for his coming, they had hoped for it; now, they believe. Faith in the Messias’ having come into the world is beginning to take root among the Gentiles. But faith is not sufficient for salvation; the stain of sin must be washed away by water. He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved. (Mark 16:16) The time is come, then, for a new manifestation of the Son of God, whereby there shall be inaugurated the great remedy, which is to give to Faith the power of producing life eternal.
Now, the decrees of divine Wisdom had chosen Water as the instrument of this sublime regeneration of the human race. Hence, in the beginning of the world, we find the Spirit of God moving over the Waters, (Genesis 1:2) in order that they might “even then conceive a principle of sanctifying power,” as the Church expresses it in her Office for Holy Saturday. (Blessing of the Font) But before being called to fulfill the designs of God’s mercy, this element of Water had to be used by the divine justice for the chastisement of a sinful world. With the exception of one family, the whole human race perished, by the terrible judgment of God, in the Waters of the Deluge.
A fresh indication of the future supernatural power of this chosen element was given by the Dove, which Noe sent forth from the Ark; it returned to him bearing in its beak an Olive branch, the symbol that peace was given to the earth by its having been buried in Water. But this was only the announcement of the mystery; its accomplishment was not to be for long ages to come.
Meanwhile, God spoke to his people by many events which were figurative of the future Mystery of Baptism. Thus, for example, it was by passing through the waters of the Red Sea that they entered into the Promised Land, and during the miraculous passage, a pillar of a cloud was seen covering both the Israelites and the Waters, to which they owed their deliverance.
But in order that Water should have the power to purify man from his sins, it was necessary that it should be brought in contact with the Sacred Body of the Incarnate God. The Eternal Father had sent his Son into the world not only that he might be its Lawgiver and Redeemer, and the Victim of its salvation—but that he might also be the Sanctifier of Water; and it was in this sacred element that he would divinely bear testimony to his being his Son, and manifest him to the world a second time.
Jesus, therefore, being now thirty years of age, comes to the Jordan, a river already celebrated for the prophetic miracles which had been wrought in its waters. The Jewish people, roused by the preaching of John the Baptist, were flocking thither in order to receive a Baptism which could indeed excite a sorrow for sin, but could effect its forgiveness. Our divine King approaches the river not, of course, to receive sanctification, for he himself is the author of all Justice—but to impart to Water the power of bringing forth, as the Church expresses the mystery, a new and heavenly progeny. (Blessing of the Font) He goes down into the stream, not like Josue, to walk dry-shod through its bed, but to let its waters encompass him, and receive from him, both for itself and for the Waters of the whole earth, the sanctifying power which they would retain forever. The saintly Baptist places his trembling hand upon the sacred head of the Redeemer, and bends it beneath the water; the Sun of Justice vivifies this his creature; he imparts to it the glow of life-giving fruitfulness; and Water thus becomes the prolific source of supernatural life.
But in this the commencement of a new creation, we look for the intervention of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. All Three are there. The heavens open; the Dove descends, not as a mere symbol, prophetic of some future grace, but as the sign of the actual presence of the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of love, who gives peace to men and changes their hearts. The Dove hovers above the head of Jesus, overshadowing, at one and the same time, the Humanity and the Incarnate Word and the water which bathed his sacred Body.
The manifestation is not complete; the Father’s voice is still to be heard speaking over the Water, and moving by its power the entire element throughout the earth. Then was fulfilled the prophecy of David: The Voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of majesty hath thundered. The Voice of the Lord breaketh cedars (that is, the pride of the devils). The Voice of the Lord divideth the flame of fire, (that is, the anger of God). The Voice of the Lord shaketh the desert, and maketh the flood to dwell (that is, announce a new Deluge, the Deluge of divine Mercy). (Psalm 28) And what says this Voice of the Father? This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:17)
Thus was the Holiness of the Emmanuel manifested by the presence of the Dove and by the voice of the Father, as his kingly character had been previously manifested by the mute testimony of the Star. The mystery is accomplished, the Waters are invested with a spiritual purifying power, and Jesus comes from the Jordan and ascends the bank, raising up with himself the world, regenerated and sanctified, with all its crimes and defilements drowned in the stream. Such is the interpretation and language of the Holy Fathers of the Church regarding this great event of our Lord’s Life.
The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates this wonderful mystery of Jesus’ Baptism; and we cannot be surprised at the Eastern Church having selected this Day for one of the solemn administrations of the sacrament of Baptism. The same custom was observed, as we learn from ancient documents, in certain Churches in the West. John Mosch tells us that, as regards the Oriental Church, the Font was more than once miraculously filled with water on the Feast of the Epiphany, and that immediately after having administered the Sacrament, the people saw the water disappear. The Roman Church, even so early as the time of St. Leo, decreed that Easter the Pentecost should be the only two days for the solemn administration of Baptism; but the custom of blessing the baptismal water with great solemnity on the Epiphany was still retained, and is observed even now in some parts of the West.
The Eastern Church has always religiously observed it. Amidst all the pomp of sacred rites, accompanied by his Priests and Ministers, who are clothed in the richest vestments, and followed by the whole people, the Bishop repairs to the banks of a river. After reciting certain beautiful prayers, which we regret not being able to offer to our dear readers, the Bishop plunges into the water a Cross richly adorned with precious stones; it represents our Lord being baptized by St. John. At St. Petersburg, the ceremony takes place on the river Neva, and it is through a hole made on the ice that the Metropolitan dips the Cross into the water. This same ceremony is observed by those Churches in the West which have retained the custom of blessing the baptismal water on this Feast.
The faithful are very anxious to carry home with them the water of the stream thus sanctified; and St. John Chrysostom, in his twenty-fourth Homily, on the Baptism of Christ, speaks to his audience of the circumstance, which was well known by all of them, of this water never turning corrupt. The same has been often seen in the Western Church.
Let us honor our Lord in this second Manifestation of his divinity, and thank him, with the Church for his having given us both the Star of Faith which enlightens us, and the Water of Baptism which cleanses us from our iniquities. Let us lovingly appreciate the humility of our Jesus, who permits himself to be weighed down by the hand of a mortal man, in order, as he says himself, that he might fulfill as justice; (Matthew 3:15) for having taken on himself the likeness of sin, it was requisite that he should bear its humiliation, that so he might raise us from our debasement. Let us thank him for this grace of Baptism, which has opened to us the gates of the Church both of heaven and earth; and let us renew the engagements we made at the holy Font, for they were the terms on which we were regenerated to our new life in God.
—The Introit, Epistle, Gradual and Alleluia-Verse, Offertory, Preface, and Communion, are the same as on the Feast of Epiphany.
In the Collect, the Church prays that her children may have the grace of becoming like to Jesus, who appeared in the Jordan, filled, indeed, with the Holy Ghost, and the object of the Heavenly Father’s love, but, at the same time, truly Man like us, and faithful in the fulfillment of all justice.
O God, whose Only Begotten Son appeared in the substance of our flesh: grant, we beseech thee, that we may be interiorly reformed by him whom we confess to have outwardly taken our flesh on himself. Who liveth, &c.
O Lamb of God! thou didst enter into the steam to purify it, the Dove came down from heaven, for thy sweet meekness attracted the Spirit of love; and having sanctified the Waters, the mystery of thy Baptism was over. But what tongue can express the prodigy of mercy effected by it! Men have gone down after thee into the stream made sacred by contact with thee; they return regenerated; they were wolves, and Baptism has transformed them into lambs. We were defiled by sin, and were unworthy to stand near thee, the spotless Lamb; but the waters of the holy Font have been poured upon us, and we are made as the sheep of the Canticle, which came up from the washing fruitful, and none is barren among them; (Song of Solomon 4:2) or, as doves upon the brooks of water, white and spotless as though they had been washed with milk, sitting near the plentiful streams! (Song of Solomon 5:12) Preserve us, O Jesus, in this white robe which thou hast put upon us. If, alas! we have tarnished its purity, cleanse us by that second Baptism, the Baptism of Penance. Permit us too, dear Lord, to intercede for those countries to whom thy Gospel has not yet been preached; let this river of peace, (Isaiah 66:12) the waters of Baptism, flow out upon them, and inundate the whole earth. We beseech thee, by the glory of thy manifestation at thy Baptism, forget the crimes of men, which have hitherto caused the Gospel to be kept from those unhappy countries. Thy heavenly Father bids every creature hear thee; speak, dear Jesus! to every creature.
We offer sacrifice to thee, O Lord, in remembrance of the Manifestation of thy Son, humbly beseeching thee; that as our Lord Jesus Christ is the author of what we offer, to he may mercifully receive the same. Who liveth, &c.
While giving thanks for the heavenly nourishment just received, the holy Church prays for the unceasing help of that divine Light which has appeared to her, and which will enable her to contemplate the purity of the Lamb, and to love him as he deserves.
May thy heavenly light, we beseech thee, O Lord, go before us at all times, and in all places; that we may contemplate with a clear sight, and receive with due affection, the mystery whereof thou hast been pleased we should partake. Through, &c.
Let us, once more, sing the praises of the divine Epiphany—the Theophany. Let us make a concert, as it were, of the Liturgies of all the Churches. St. Hilary of Poitiers shall be our first chapter, in the Hymn he has written on the three mysteries of this great Octave.
Jesus, the merciful Redeemer of all nations, shone forth on this day; let the faithful of every race celebrate him in their songs of praise.
A Star, shining in the heavens, announces his Birth; it leads the way, and guides them to his Crib.
Prostrating, they adore the Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes; they confess him to be the true God, offering him their mystic gifts.
Thirty years of his life had passed, and He, the infinitely pure God, seeks the laver of baptism.
John, the favored Baptist, trembles as he bends the head of Jesus beneath the waters—that Jesus whose Blood was to purify the whole earth from its sins.
The divine voice of the Father is heard from heaven, bearing testimony to his Son; and the Holy Spirit too is present, the giver of holy grace.
We beseech thee in humble supplication, O Jesus! protect thy people; we ask it of thee by the power thou didst show when thou didst command the water to be changed into wine.
May praise, honor, and all power be to the Trinity for ever and for ever.
The Ambrosian Church of Milan thus celebrates the Baptism of our Lord in the beautiful Preface we take from its Missal.
It is truly meet and just, right and available to salvation, that we should always, here and in all places, give thanks to thee, O Holy Lord, Almighty Father, Eternal God, who didst show thyself unto us in the river Jordan by speaking to us from heaven in the voice of thunder, whereby thou wouldst manifest unto us our heavenly Savior, and show thyself to be the Father of eternal light, and therefore thou didst open the heavens, and bless the air, and purify the stream: and thou didst announce him to be thine Only Begotten Son by the Holy Ghost, who appeared in the form of a Dove. On this day did the waters receive thy benediction, and take away our malediction, so that they give to believers the purification of all their sins, and make them, by adoption, sons of God unto life everlasting. For, they that were born by the flesh unto temporal life, and made by sin subject to death, have been admitted into life everlasting, and restored to the glory of the heavenly kingdom.
The venerable Antiphons we now give are the precious remnants of the ancient Gallican Liturgy: they are of oriental origin, and are still preserved in the Cistercian Breviary.
Renewing our old man, the Savior comes to Baptism, that he might by water restore our nature which had been corrupted: he clothed us with an incorruptible garment.
We glorify thee as our God and Redeemer, that didst purify the contagious defilements of mankind in the Spirit and in fire.
The Baptist trembled, and dares not to touch the head of God; but cries out, with fear: Sanctify me, O Savior!
The Savior crushed the serpent’s head in the river Jordan, and delivered us all from his power.
A great Mystery is this day declared to us; for the Creator of all wipes away our sins in the Jordan.
The soldier baptizes his King, the servant his Lord, and John his Savior: the waters of the Jordan were amazed, and testimony was borne by the Dove: the voice of the Father was heard: this is my Son.
The springs of water were sanctified when the glory of Christ was manifested: all ye countries of the earth, draw out waters from the Savior’s fountains, for on that day did Christ our God sanctify every creature.
The following Sequence, which we take from the ancient Paris Missals, was composed in the Middle Ages, when it was used by many of the Churches in the West. It celebrates the three Mysteries of the Epiphany.
A Star has miraculously risen, that was foretold by the Prophets: it tells the rising of the divine Light.
It guides the Magi, it terrifies Herod, it leads the Gentiles to Jesus, the haven of peace.
It reveals the Child, the creator of the stars, the avenger of crime, the Strong God.
The mystic gifts proclaim him to be the Ruler of all things, and the Redeemer who saved us by his death.
He is baptized in the waters, and the waters imbibe from him a virtue, whereby they wash away Adam’s sins.
The Dove is seen: the voice of the Father speaks his love of the Son, therefore making known his glory.
The word of John bears also testimony; and the law of love is begun.
The guests are gladdened, when the spring-water is made to do the service of the better wine.
The Word of the Father is espoused in sweet love in the womb of the Virgin, the Spouse without stain.
May he cleanse our alms, and so loosen our chains, protecting us forever, at his Mother’s prayer. Amen.
The Greek Church offers us, in her Menæa, these magnificent verses on the Baptism of our Lord: they are full of poetry, doctrine, and devotion.
DIE VI JANUARII, IN THEOPHANIA
Elias had been taken up on high: Eliseus touched the Jordan with his cloak, and the stream was turned back; the waters divided, leaving the Prophet a dry, yet moistened, path, as a true type of that Baptism, whereby we pass the stream-like path of life. Christ appeared, desiring to renew his creature.
On this day was sanctified the element of water; the Jordan is divided, and its waters cease to flow, seeing its Lord seeking baptism in its stream.
Thou hast come to the river, O Christ our King! thou hast come as Man to receive baptism at thy servant’s hands; good Jesus! lover of mankind! thou art eager to bend beneath thy Precursor’s hand.
At the voice of him that cried out in the desert: Prepare ye the way of the Lord! thou didst come, O Lord! making to thyself the likeness of a servant, and, thou that knowest not sin, asking for Baptism! The waters saw thee, and trembled. The Precursor trembled, and exclaimed: “How shall the lamp give light to the Light? O Savior! thou takest away the sins of the world, sanctify me and the waters.”
His right hand trembled, for, though Precursor, and Baptist, and Prophet greater than all Prophets, he saw before him the Lamb of God that washes away the sins of the world: oppressed with anxious doubt, he exclaimed: “O Word! I dare not put my hand upon thy head: do thou sanctify and enlighten me, O Merciful One! for thou art the life, and light, and peace of the world.”
It was a wonderful thing to see the Lord of heaven and earth standing naked in the river, receiving as a servant, and from his servant, Baptism for our salvation. The choirs of Angels stood amazed, in fear and in joy. We adore thee, O Jesus! together with them. Save us.
O holy Baptist! raise up to him, for us, that hand of thine, which touched the untouched Head of our Lord, and wherewith thou didst point him out to us. Thou hast great power, for he declared thee to be greater than all the Prophets. Turn, also, to him thine eyes, which saw the Most Holy Spirit come down in the form of a Dove. Have pity on us, and be with us encouraging our hymn, and thyself beginning the canticle of praise.
The waters of the Jordan received thee, O Jesus, the fountain of life! and the Paraclete came down upon thee in the form of a Dove. He who bent down the very heavens, now bends his sacred Head! The clay that was formed cries out complainingly to Him who formed it: “Why biddest thou me do what is above me? I have need to be baptized by thee, O Sinless One!”
Thou didst bend thine head to thy Precursor; thou didst crush the heads of the serpents. Thou didst go down into the river; thou didst enlighten all things that they might glorify thee, O Savior, thou Light of our souls!
He that is clad with light as with a garment, deigned, for our sakes, to become like unto us. Today, he girds himself with the waters of the Jordan, not needing them for his own purification, but that he might give regeneration to us through himself. O wondrous work!
Come, let us imitate the wise virgins; come, let us go to meet our Lord thus manifested to us, for, like a bridegroom, he comes to John. The Jordan turned back, when it saw thee, O Jesus! it bent its course and stood. John exclaimed: “I dare not touch the head of the eternal God.” The Spirit came down, in the form of a Dove, to sanctify the waters, and a Voice said from heaven: “This is my Son, that is come into the world to save mankind.” Glory be to thee, O Christ!
Christ is baptized, and comes up from the water; he raises up the world with himself, and sees that heaven opened, which Adam had closed against himself and his children. The Spirit, too, proclaims the divinity of Him that was baptized, and a Voice from heaven is heard at the same time. Thus is Christ declared to be the Savior of our souls.
When thou didst will, O Lord! to fulfill thy eternal decrees, thou didst permit all creatures to minister to thy Mystery! Gabriel, among the Angels; the Virgin, among men; the Star, among the heavenly bodies; the Jordan, among the streams of water. Thou didst take on thyself the sin of the world. Glory be to thee, O Savior!
O Jordan, why wonderest thou at seeing the Invisible thus naked before thee? “I saw,” thou repliest, “and how should I not tremble? The angels see him, and are awed. The heavens were moved, the earth shook, the sea curled up its waves, and all things visible and invisible feared.” Christ manifested himself in the Jordan, that he might sanctify the waters.
The Precursor, the herald of Christ, exclaimed: “Who is there that has seen a spot upon the sun, the orb of brightness! And how shall I, that am but as grass of the field, baptize thee, thou brightness of glory, and image of the eternal Father? How shall I dare touch the fire of the Divinity? For thou art the Christ, the wisdom and the power of God.”
Christ, the great Light, has shone on Galilee of the Gentiles, on the country of Zabulum, and on the land of Nephthalim; to them that sat in darkness there has appeared a bright light in Bethlehem the bright. But, the Sun of Justice, the Lord, has risen from Mary, and shown far brighter rays on the whole earth.
Let us, therefore, who, in Adam, are naked of all good, put on Jesus, that we may grow warm; for, thou art come, O Christ! to be the clothing of the naked, and the light of them that are in darkness. O Light inaccessible! thou hast appeared to the world.
Let us recite, in honor of the Virgin Mother of our dear Jesus, this venerable Hymn of our ancient Missals. It is an imitation of the celebrated Sequence for Pentecost, composed by the holy king Robert, and which we shall give in its proper place.
May the grace of that Holy Spirit be now with us,
Whereby the Virgin Mary conceived, and brought forth Jesus, our God,
And holy Virginity, in this Mother, brought forth its Flower.
O Spirit of Love! thou didst fill Mary with thyself,
Thou didst infuse the dew of heaven into her.
O Divine Lover! the purest Virgin receives Jesus from Thee.
Under thy shadow, she continues a Virgin, and is made the Mother of God.
Thou didst preserve Mary from contracting the original guilt.
Thou didst consecrate the sanctuary of this so blessed a womb.
That it might be the dwelling of Jesus, and Mary be his Mother,
And so bring forth her Son, as to be still the same pure Flower.
Thou it was that didst inspire the Prophets to foretell how Mary should conceive her God.
Thou it was that didst strengthen the Apostles to preach this God, the Son of Mary.
When God created this world, he gave us a type of Mary.
The virgin-earth produced the first Adam; so did Mary give birth to the second.
Thou art the hope of sorrowing hearts, sweet Mary!
Loosen the fetters of thy devoted servants, O Mary!
Thou didst restore to life the world that was crushed by sin, O Mary!
Thou didst destroy idolaters and wicked laws, O Mary!
We humbly beseech thee, therefore, that thou mercifully help us, O Mary!
And, pray to thy Son for us who sing to thee, Ave Maria!
Thou art Blessed of all the blessed, O Mary!
Thou art raised above the highest choirs of the Angels, O Mary!
Thou didst clad with the nature of Man, O Mary,
Him who made thee, and not as other mothers, be his Mother, O Mary!
He is our God; pray him to have mercy on us, O Mary!
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)