What life-giving waters there, and what terrifying ones! At the beginning of the Book of Genesis we read how the spirit of God moved over the waters and how all living creatures originated in them. Throughout the history of mankind – but particularly in the Old Testament – we see water as the image of life; it saves the parched life in the desert, it gives life to fields and forests, it is the sign of life and of God’s mercy; and in the sacred books of the Old and New Testaments water is the image of purification, cleansing, renewal. But there are also terrifying waters; the waters of the Flood in which all perished who were no longer able to withstand God’s judgement; the waters which we see during the course of our lives, the fearful, dark waters of inundation and destruction.
And Christ came to the waters of Jordan. In these waters of a world no longer sinless, but of our world, polluted to its very depths by human sin and betrayal, the people who were repenting after St. John’s call washed themselves clean. The waters were heavy with the sins of the people who had washed in them. Would that we could perceive how these cleansing waters little by little became heavy and menacing with these sins! And it was into these waters that Christ immersed Himself at the beginning of His heroic ministry and gradual ascent towards the Cross; He the sinless One sank down into the waters that carried all the weight of human sin.
The Baptism of the Lord is one of the most awesome and tragic moments of His life. His Nativity is the moment when God through His love for men, wishing to save us from eternal destruction, clothes Himself in human flesh which becomes permeated with divinity, is renewed, becomes eternal, pure, luminous, that flesh which by way of the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascention will sit at the right hand of God the Father. On the day of the Lord’s Baptism the path of preparation is completed; now the Lord, mature in His humanity, the man Jesus Christ who has reached the full measure of His maturity, united by perfect love and perfect obedience to the will of the Father, goes of His own volition, freely, to fulfil what was preordained by the Eternal Council. Now the man Jesus Christ brings this flesh as a sacrifice and a gift not only to God but to all mankind; He takes on His shoulders the whole horror of human sin, of man’s fall, and submerges Himself in these waters which have become the waters of death, the image of destruction, bearing in themselves all the evil and poison of sin.
In the further development of events, the Baptism of the Lord most closely resembles the horror of the Garden of Gethsemane, the dereliction of death on the cross and the descent into hell. Here too Christ is so closely linked with the destiny of man that its whole weight falls upon Him, and the descent into hell is the final measure of His unity with us, the loss of everything – and the victory over evil. That is what makes this majestic feast so tragic, and that is why the waters of Jordan, loaded with all the weight and horror of sin, are purified to their very depths by contact with Christ’s body, sinless, pure, immortal and radiant with divinity, the body of the God-man, and become once more the primeval waters of life capable of cleansing sin, of renewing man, able to restore his incorruption, to unite him to the Cross and make him a child no longer of the flesh but of eternal life, of the Kingdom of God.
This is a feast full of trepidation, and that, is why when we sanctify the water on this day we watch it with amazement and reverence; this water, by the descent of the Holy Spirit, becomes not only the water of Jordan, not only the primeval water of life, but water that is capable of giving us not just earthly, but eternal life too. That is why we partake of this water with reverence and with awe. That is why the Church speaks of it as very sacred and exhorts us to keep some in our homes in case of illness, in case of spiritual troubles, in case of sin, for cleansing and renewal, for communion to a newly purified life. Let us partake of this water, let us handle it reverently. Through this water the renewal of nature has begun, the sanctification of creatures, the transfiguration of the world. Here also, as in the Holy Gifts, we see the beginning of the age to come, the victory of God and the beginning of eternal life, the eternal glory not simply of man but of the whole of nature, when God will be all in all.
Glory be to God for His everlasting mercy, for His divine condescension, for the work of the Son of God become the son of man! Glory be to God that He renews man and his destinies and the world in which we live; and that, after all, in spite of everything, we can live in the hope of a victory already won, rejoicing that we await the day of the Lord, the great, wonderful, dreadful day when the whole world will be resplendent with the grace of the Holy Spirit, not only given, but accepted.