While several Americans brought down their Christmas trees the day after Christmas, intentional Catholics know that 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 marked the Epiphany of the Lord and the visit of the Magi. Today, Christmas season comes to an end and we enter the Ordinary Time of the Year.
To understand the import of today’s feast, we must situate it within the incarnation of God, which is Christmas. Some key terms need explanation, namely, “natura” and “essentia,” in order to appreciate the meaning of Christmas. Nature is the form in which a being manifests itself. For example, God is the being whose nature is “to be;” that means: He manifests himself as “esse” or existence. In a similar sense, we manifest ourselves as human, just as the grass manifests itself as vegetable. Distinct differences exist in the natures of God, humans, and vegetables. We do have something in common with grass, that is, we are creatures. God is uncreated: He always is and has always been. (In Exodus 3, the passage about the Burning Bush, He revealed His name to Moses as—“He who is;” the Jews translate that as “Yahweh”). However, we are made in God’s image. Now, we need not be over-excited about that, just as a grass effigy shouldn’t jump in excitement just because it is fashioned in the likeness of a human being. Christmas for grasses would mean that one of us took the nature of grass, just as for us it means that God took our nature.
I don’t know what the most despicable thing about grasses is – maybe, allergies. But I know what it is for human beings: something we call SIN. Today’s feast is about God’s identification with the most despicable thing about us: sin. That was why John the Baptist, who perhaps understood best whom Jesus was, protested that he was not worthy to perform this ritual for one who not only didn’t need it, but rather should do it for others. Jesus’ insistence to be baptized, thus, becomes the climax of the incarnation, for He desired to become one with all Israel (God’s people), you and me, in our sin condition. That was a moment of great divide. Heaven and earth become married; the old gives way to the new. The Spirit of God which “hovered” over the deep in the original creation (Gen 1:2) would now 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, was at hand (Gen 8:11). The flood, in Noah’s time, which destroyed the earth prefigured the baptismal water that destroys sin. Christ’s descent into the Baptismal water was meant, on the one hand, to sanctify it in order to quell completely its destructive power for God’s people, and, on the other hand, to turn it into an utterly destructive force for sin, for the enemies of God and His people, as He did 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 at the Cathedral is shaped like a womb from which new babies are delivered. At St Bernard, you’ll get the sense of going into the grave, as you approach the Baptismal font—symbolizing dying and rising with Christ. St. Hilary of Poitiers says that “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.” By baptism we overcome Adam’s sinful death through God’s overpowering love.
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo