In countries where the Epiphany is celebrated on the traditional date of 6 January, the Baptism of the Lord is commemorated on the following Sunday, 8 January in 2023. The proximity is fitting because the baptism was anciently an intrinsic part of the manifestation of the Lord in his incarnation: the word “epiphany” in fact means “manifestation”.
The three synoptic Gospels trace the beginning of the ministry of Jesus to his baptism in the Jordan. Therefore, let us start our reflection at the source of that river that is both a feature of the landscape and a place of sacrament and symbol. The Jordan rises in the heights of Mt Hermon and flows south, entering the Lake of Galilee between the ancient villages of Capernaum and Bethsaida. For the Psalmist, the dew of Hermon is a fount of blessing. The river leaves the Lake at the southern end and continues its long winding journey of 360 kilometres to the Dead Sea; it is a source of life in a dry land.
Maybe Jesus followed the valley of these life-giving waters in his journey south to be baptized. But John, with his prophetic insight, says, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? Some of the Fathers of the Church explain that Jesus does not enter the waters to be cleansed, but by entering, he sanctifies the element of water for all time as the instrument of Christian baptism. In that Trinitarian moment he is anointed by the Spirit and embraced by the love of the Father; moreover, he will enable us, in the words of 2 Peter, to become partakers of the divine nature.
But if water is a source and symbol of life, it is also a source and symbol of death. There are the terrible floods, the surging power of the ocean, the tsunamis. The Old Testament recognizes this ambiguity. The Psalmist, while wondering at the sea, vast and wide, with its moving swarms past counting, acknowledges at the same time the monsters of the deep. The great monster Leviathan is a symbol of chaos, disorder and destruction, and perhaps also of those deep, dark places within us where we fear to enter. God asks Job, Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish hook … will he speak to you soft words? Clearly not!
The baptism of the Lord in the Jordan anticipates our baptism because it looks towards the sign of Jonah who, swallowed up by the Leviathan, is regurgitated to new life. So too, at the end of his ministry, the baptized Jesus will enter the maw of death, to come up immediately from the water. And so do we in baptism. We pass from the tyranny of Leviathan and Egypt, through the waters of death to new life.
And a final thought: the Scriptures hint at something I find deeply consoling: our personal Leviathans will not be destroyed. Instead, they will be somehow tamed: while they may not sing soft words, they will be monsters you made to play with.
Fr Edmund Power osb