The Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. What happened?

The first problem to face is that for so many Christians the feast of Christmas is number one on the calendar. Not surprising if we look only at the secular calendar and the secular celebration–a plethora of good feeling, sentimentality, good cheer, lots of buying and selling, a time of relaxation and perhaps reunion, a time of donating food to the poor and hungry, a time of soft, vague religious messages–don’t want to get too carried away because the poor and hungry will have to go back to their starving lives after Christmas, etc. From the liturgical/theological/spiritual angle, this centrality of Christmas is a pointer, albeit a small one, of how really lost we are. From the Christian perspective the Paschal Mystery celebrated at Easter, or to be more precise, during the Triduum, the time of Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday, this is the number one feast on the calendar. Now what might surprise even more people is that Christmas, according to the ancient tradition of the Church, is not even the second most important feast. Let us look at a bit of history.

For the first few centuries of Christianity there were three major liturgical moments in the life of the faith-filled community: first, Easter, the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, the death and resurrection of Jesus; secondly, the time of preparation for this celebration and for initiation of new members, now called Lent; and thirdly a feast on January 6th called Epiphany or in the Eastern Church, the Theophany–primarily this included the visitation by the Magi, and the birth of Jesus, and even the baptism of Jesus as an adult by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. There was no “Christmas”; no focus on the “Baby Jesus” and so forth. It was about four centuries later that the feast of Christmas emerged, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and it took the place of a pagan Roman feast on December 25th. And in fact the feast always kept a kind of lowly “3rd place” in the list of feasts involving Jesus. So far, so good! But with the split of the Church into East and West, the Western Church, in both its Roman Catholic and Protestant versions, started elevating Christmas higher and higher. One might add that this was done with the help of some outstanding saints too! In any case, Christmas seems to be the very top feast today, and especially from the secular standpoint as that has modified the meaning of this feast with all kinds of secular rituals. Easter, by contrast, hardly gets a squeak from secular society.

Now returning back to the Eastern Church, Orthodoxy, we find that it has kept very faithfully the oldest traditions. Of course it celebrates Christmas jubilantly as the feast has separated itself out from the celebration of January 6th, but in terms of solemnity and importance, the Theophany ranks higher. This is the second most important feast in the Orthodox calendar. And it has a different focus than this same day in the Western Church. “Theophany” means the “appearance of God,” the manifestation of God. The Eastern Church, following the tradition of the early church originally included the birth of Jesus in this feast but saw the first great moment of that “theophany” primarily in the Baptism of Jesus by John at the Jordan–the first manifestation of the Triune relationships within God, but also at the same time it kept one eye as it were on the visitation of the Three Magi. The feast kind of blended these moments into “the Theophany.” Later on as we said the birth got its own feast, but it was never considered as important as The Theophany. In the West what was left got separated out into two distinct and different feasts: the Epiphany, and the Baptism of the Lord; and neither of these feasts has any kind of stature within Western Christianity compared to Christmas. So things went in another direction.

With various liturgical reform movements, especially with Vatican II, there was an attempt made to bring these feasts into a kind of liturgical/theological coherence–with the addition of another very quiet feast that is simply a “Sunday in Ordinary Time” but which has great significance(and yes, again, in the Orthodox Church!)–The Wedding at Cana. So in the Catholic calendar, at least, there is this theological unity from Christmas to about the 3rd or 4th Sunday in January which comprises then Christmas, Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, and the Wedding at Cana. The unity consists in this dimension of Theophany. Here is how one online authoritative source puts it:

“The Baptism of the Lord has historically been associated with the celebration of Epiphany. Even today, the Eastern Christian feast of Theophany, celebrated on January 6 as a counterpart to the Western feast of Epiphany, focuses primarily on the Baptism of the Lord as the revelation of God to man.
After the Nativity of Christ (Christmas) was separated out from Epiphany, the Church in the West continued the process and dedicated a celebration to each of the major epiphanies (revelations) or theophanies (the revelation of God to man): the Birth of Christ at Christmas, which revealed Christ to Israel; the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, in the visit of the Wise Men at Epiphany; the Baptism of the Lord, which revealed the Trinity; and the miracle at the wedding at Cana, which revealed Christ’s transformation of the world. ”

Ok. That’s not bad. However, if you look, this year you will not find any celebration of the Baptism of Lord on any Sunday in the Catholic liturgical calendar. They actually regard it as so inessential that if it doesn’t fit their manipulation of calendar feasts, it simply gets dropped to an almost invisible weekday celebration–this year on January 9th.

I protest!! Ok, you may be asking yourself, why is he getting so worked up about this?! Truly it is not a big deal, but there is something important at stake in all this. Here I am with Abhishiktananda in “placing on a pedestal” this feast. He actually considered the baptism of Jesus the central and signature moment of the Gospels while the death and resurrection of Jesus become only somewhat secondary in his Christology. I am not quite ready to go THAT far with Abhishiktananda; and his Christology, especially as articulated in his last years, may be seriously critiqued from the standpoint of Christian tradition. I mean there is a legitimate question: is he breaking with something core to Christianity or is he profoundly and radically reinterpreting it? We will discuss that at another time.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of Abhishiktananda’s understanding of the Baptism episode, let us look at least at some scriptural descriptions:

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'” (Mark 1: 9-11)
Matthew’s account is similar but less spare and more wordy, but finally he gets to the same moment: “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'” (Mt 3: 16-17)

Just one note: when in Mark’s account it says that the heavens were “torn apart,” that is correct—some translations wanting to even it out with the other versions make it the more mellow, “opened.” But Mark is more emphatic, more dramatic, more intense.

Now look at what one semi-official source says about this episode:

“At first glance, the Baptism of the Lord might seem an odd feast. Since the Catholic Church teaches that the Sacrament of Baptism is necessary for the remission of sins, particularly Original Sin, why was Christ baptized? After all, He was born without Original Sin, and He lived His entire life without sinning. Therefore, He had no need of the sacrament, as we do.
In submitting Himself humbly to the baptism of St. John the Baptist, however, Christ provided the example for the rest of us. If even He should be baptized, though He had no need of it, how much more should the rest of us be thankful for this sacrament, which frees us from the darkness of sin and incorporates us into the Church, the life of Christ on earth! His Baptism, therefore, was necessary–not for Him, but for us.”

This is awfully lame stuff, and I wish I could put it more strongly! But so much of Catholic catechetical and pious literature has this kind of language. It’s as if Jesus is “play-acting,” going along and doing various things, setting us “examples,” and inventing these things called “sacraments.” Jesus shows up at a wedding at Cana, and whammo, you have the sacrament of marriage. Jesus touches the water and the water becomes holy. Hey, Jesus pees in the Jordan, does that make it a sacred river? And he poops behind a bush—is there a sacred bush out there, certainly more than one….? Sorry for these absurd statements, but this kind of catechetical language does not take the humanity of Jesus seriously, and it needs to be exposed for what it is, official or not. It does not take seriously the all-important proclamation of John 1:14: kai ho logos sarx egeneto, and the word became flesh. And this means the full depths of the human condition, its samsaric condition, if you will, always vulnerable to maya—thus the temptation in the desert. We can readily admit that Jesus was “sinless” if Church teaching calls for that, but “sarx” here implies also anxiety, fear, doubt, uncertainty, the pull toward screwed-up human identities, etc., etc. Jesus is truly one of us in our basic condition and struggle, and most importantly and most controversially, the need to discover who he is, his true identity.

Given all that, Abhishiktananda’s interpretation of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan as depicted in the Gospels is, I think, a very profound intuition of the very deep mystery that is being revealed there. Let us quote some from his writings:

“Jesus experienced such a closeness to God–probably the very same as is revealed in the advaitic experience–that he exploded the biblical idea of ‘Father’ and of ‘Son of God’ to the extent of calling God ‘Abba’, i.e., the name which in Aramaic only the one who is ‘born from’ him can say to anyone. But the term ‘Son’ is only imagery, and I fear the theologians have treated this image too much as an absolute, to an extent that becomes simply mythical. In Johannine terms Jesus discovered that the I AM of Yahweh belonged to himself; or rather, putting it the other way round, it was in the brilliant light of his own I AM that he discovered the true meaning, total and unimaginable, of the name of Yahweh. To call God ‘Abba’ is an equivalent in Semitic terms of advaita, the fundamental experience…. It seems that in his Baptism he had an overwhelming experience; he felt himself to be Son, not in a notional, Greek, fashion, but that he had a commission given by Yahweh to fulfil; and in this commisssion he felt his nearness to Yahweh….”

“Jesus’ experience at the Jordan impresses me more and more. And in the concept of Father/Son I now see not so much the relationship of derivation (which even so is not denied) as the relationship of ekatvam [oneness]….”

“The baptism of Jesus was for him the fundamental experience on which his whole life depended. He had the experience of being possessed by the Spirit of God, this Spirit of Yahweh that the Old Testament had announced (Isaiah 11,2). ‘On him the spirit of Yahweh rests.’ He had the experience in the same time of being the Son of God and the expereicne of God the Father. The baptism gives nothing to Jesus, yet it reveals to him who He is.”

“Jesus recognized himself as Son of God, beyond all the devas, beyond his being and beyond the universe—and beyond his religion also. And in this re-cognizing he recognized Yahweh in his real greatness.”

“Jesus is a person who has totally discovered, realized his mystery…. His name is ‘I AM,’…. Jesus is savior by virtue of having realized his NAME. He has shown and has opened the way out of samsara, the phenomenal world, and has reached the guha, the padamk beyond the heavens—which is the mystery of the Father. In discovering the Father, he has not found an ‘Other’: I and the Father are one. In the only spirit, he has discovered his non-duality with Yahweh; it is the Spirit that is the link, the non-duality.”

And then from Shail Mayaram commenting on Abhishiktananda:

“There is a profound intertextuality and interculturality to the life and work of Abhishiktananda. He clearly universalizes the discourse of advaitic spirituality and sanyasa or renunciation. He uses it to understand, as he states, the deepest truth of Jesus’ baptism as the moment of ‘awakening’ to the recognition of the non-duality of being. Abhishiktananda notes that in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus came up out of the waters, he saw the heavens ‘rent asunder’–thus indicating that the separation between heaven and earth, between man and God, was abolished–while the Spirit ‘descended’ filling the whole of space. Jesus then heard a voice that said: ‘Thou art my Son,’ and he responded: ‘Abba (Father)’.”

“As Abhishiktananda prepares for his disciple Marc’s diksa, he refers to Jesus’ ‘awakening at his Baptism,…, and the need to celebrate the awakening of everyone to aham asmi, ego eimi, I am.’ Baptism is the recognition of ‘advaita with Abba-Yahweh that he shares with everyone.’ He writes of Jesus as ‘I Am,’ as one with the Father: ‘In the only Spirit, he has discovered his non-duality withYahweh; it is the Spirit that is the link, the non-duality.’ He also mentions that when Jesus sees the heavens torn open, hears a voice and sees the dove, the voice reveals to him that he is the child of Yahweh.”

So much for the quotes—there is an awful lot in them! But just to summarize the main point: the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John the Baptist is to be interpreted as THE AWAKENING, and the paradigm for all awakening to the deepest mystery within one. Jesus awakens to a realization of an unimaginable intimacy with the one that his culture called “Yahweh”–and here you have to recall how absolutely transcendent this Yahweh was in the Old Testament, how absolutely “other,” how supreme and utterly “beyond” he was, how “unnameable” he was, etc., etc. And so the unspeakably radical and revolutionary nature of Jesus’ ability after this to speak of this Yahweh as “Abba,” points us, as Abhishiktananda indicates, in the direction of a Semitic-Christian version of advaita, of non-duality with the Ultimate Reality. What this means for each of us, then, needs theological and spiritual-mystical elaboration and unfolding that may take us into unexpected places, may scare us, may leave us dangling on the edge of a religious precipice so to speak, may lead us into controversial and paradoxical realms, etc. More about that in forthcoming posts, but let us conclude with just one more note: Abhishiktananda’s laser-like focus on the Holy Spirit as the “sign” and instrument of Christian advaita. This coheres well with the fact that in Western Christianity the Holy Spirit was less and less in focus as time went on; and so Western Christianity became more and more dualistic, preoccupied with externals, institutions, authority, laws, rules, morality, seeing Jesus as this exemplar, a model for imitation, God as someone “out there” to please, etc., etc. Interestingly enough, one of the greatest of the modern saints of Eastern Christianity, St. Seraphim of Russia, said, in contrast, that the whole point of the spiritual life, the whole point of it all is to “acquire the Holy Spirit.” Indeed. “To have the Holy Spirit” is to hear within one’s heart the call of your true identity: “thou art my child.” It is to stand now within the advaita of the Divine Trinity.

All this is at stake in this feast that is now relegated to an uneventful weekday Mass where in most churches there were only be a few devout persons, most of them little old ladies who come to Mass every day; and in other churches the doors were simply closed and no Mass was celebrated. Interesting.

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