I was nicely surprised when I went out two nights ago and saw that the Christmas lights in some McAlester streets were still on. I guess someone forgot to remove them when many other Americans brought down their Christmas décor/trees on December 26th. Yet, intentional Catholics know that the Christmas season only began on Christmas day and concludes today with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Christmas, like Easter, is celebrated with an octave—eight consecutive days that liturgically form a single day. The Octave of Christmas ended on January 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Last Sunday was the Epiphany of the Lord and the Visit of the Magi. Today, Christmas season officially ends.
To understand the import of Christ’s baptism, and in fact ours, too, we must situate it within the incarnation—“taking flesh”—of God, which is Christmas. Explanation of some key terms may be of assistance, namely, “natura” (nature) and “esse (existence),” in order to appreciate the meaning of Christmas. Nature is the form in which a being (a thing) manifests itself. Existence is the fact or state of being (living). For example, God’s nature is “to be;” He manifests Himself as existence. While humans do have existence as well, the capacity to exist is not natural to us. Existence or esse is given to us. We manifest ourselves as human, just as grass manifests itself as vegetable. Distinct differences exist in the natures of God, humans, rocks, and vegetables. Humans have something in common with grass, namely, creatureliness. God is uncreated—He always is. Humans, however, are made in God’s image. Now, we need not feel overly jutted about that, just as a grass effigy need not rejoice that it is fashioned in the likeness of a human. Christmas for grasses would mean that one of us took the nature of grass; as for us it means that God took our nature and, in turn, divinizes—adding “esse” (eternal life) to our nature.
Do you know what’s the most despicable thing about grasses? I’ll guess—allergies. But I know what it is for humans: something we call SIN. Today’s feast oddly celebrates God’s identification with that most despicable thing about us—sin. This explains why John the Baptist, who understood Jesus well, protested Jesus’s request to be baptized by him—for, not only did He not need it, He rather should be baptizing others. Jesus’ insistence to be baptized, thus, becomes the climax of the incarnation: He desired to become one with Israel (God’s people), all of us, in our sin condition. That was a momentous unification event. Heaven becomes wedded to earth; the old gives way to the new. The Spirit of God that “hovered” over the deep in the original creation (Gen 1:2) would at His baptism descend like a dove upon Him, signaling a new creation.
This new beginning was sometime in the past signaled to Noah after the dove returned to him bearing an olive branch to indicate that salvation, symbolized by “dry land,” had come (Gen 8:11). The flood, in Noah’s time, which destroyed the earth prefigured the baptismal water that destroys sin. Christ’s entering into the baptismal water was meant, on the one hand, to sanctify water, in order to quell its destructive power for God’s people; and, on the other hand, to turn it into an utterly destructive force for sin, for our enemy the devil, as He did for Israel at the Red Sea. The Holy Spirit descending as a dove on Jesus, just as He brought an olive branch to Noah, signals the arrival of God’s favor—a form of dry land—and an assurance of salvation.
Baptism is full of rich symbols. The Baptismal font here at St. John’s is shaped like a womb from which new life emerges. At St. Bernard in Tulsa, you’ll get the sense of entering the grave, as you approach the Baptismal font, symbolizing dying and rising with Christ. St. Hilary of Poitiers said: “Everything that happened to Christ during His baptism happens to us. After the bath of water, the Holy Spirit swoops down on us from high heaven, and we become adopted by the Father’s voice, calling us to be His sons and daughters.” The Baptism of Christ with God’s overpowering love in Christ properly crowns the Christmas season.
Fr. Jovis Chukwudi Okonkwo