During graduate school I lived in New York City with the priests who were chaplains at Columbia University. At one of their meetings, the Jewish chaplain requested a presentation on theology so that the non-Christians might better understand the essence of Christian faith. At the seminar, one of the Protestant chaplains read today’s passage of the Baptism of the Lord and commented, “I came up with a theory the other day: Jesus became God’s Son at his Baptism.” My pastor responded, “Actually, there were some early Christians who believed just that. They were called Adoptionists…and their teaching was rejected as heresy.” Pretty rough, I know, but it had to be said. At the center of Christian faith is the conviction that there is one God in three Persons, all of them equal in majesty and co-eternal. It follows that whatever can be said about God can be said about Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit. The idea that a man named Jesus became divine at the waters of the Jordan violates this central article of faith, both because it assumes that the Son of God was not eternal and that there was a time he did not possess the divine nature.
The status imputed to Jesus by the good chaplain applies rather to you and me, namely, that we are the children of God, not by nature but by adoption. Because God’s Son became a human being, we in turn are made capable of sharing divine life. It does not imply that we literally morph into gods and goddesses, but rather that we are swept up into the life of the Triune God. The original innocence we enjoyed in Eden and forfeited by sin has been restored by Jesus’ sacrificial death. Just as Adam’s sin once “closed” the gates of heaven to us, they are now “torn open.” The 4th-century Father St. Hilary, one of the great champions of Christ’s divinity, declares that “the Holy Spirit swoops down upon us from high heaven and, adopted by the Father’s voice, we become children of God.” (Italics mine.) What a tremendous dignity we Christians enjoy. This fundamental change in our relation to God is what we call sacramental character, and it is why we must be baptized before receiving any of the other sacraments. Their cumulative effect is that we become more and more like Christ, and made worthy to share eternal life in heaven.
It is therefore appropriate that, after the Christmas season draws to a close, we enter into Ordinary Time to find the grace of God in the everyday moments of life. The Baptism of the Lord is one of several “Epiphanies,” i.e. “shinings-forth” of Our Lord’s divinity among human beings. The earliest epiphany, of course, occurs with the adoration of the magi in Bethlehem. In this scene, all three persons of the Holy Trinity make an appearance: Christ, at the waters of the Jordan, the Holy Spirit alighting like a dove over him, and the voice of God the Father speaking from the heavens. In St. Mark’s Gospel, the Father speaks directly to Jesus. It is as though we who behold the event are allowed to “eavesdrop” on the conversation between the two.
Our artwork this week is El Greco’s Baptism of Christ (1570-1600), now residing at the Prado Museum in Madrid. According to the Prado, the artist combined his training in eastern iconography (e.g., God the Father depicted as the Pantocrator, or “Conqueror of All”) with techniques honed during his years in Italy, to develop a unique style. He sought to convey the spiritual dimension his subject, not photo-realism. As such, the exaggerated proportions of the bodies, the symbolic use of light and color (e.g. red, in anticipation of Jesus’ passion), and the upward movement toward heaven, are all typical of El Greco.
Christian mysticism holds that in some mysterious way the life of Christ courses through us as we are “plunged” into his death and resurrection. As we re-enter Ordinary Time, let us bring the grace of Christ to our neighbor.