Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Feast of Divine Light and Love

We sang in the Christmas Liturgy: “When the Lord Jesus was born of the Virgin, the whole creation lit up… for the Savior of our souls appeared in the flesh.” The Light of the World had come into the darkness of our sin and death, so, as the Liturgy says again: “Your coming, O Christ, has shed upon us a great light, O You Light of Light and Radiance of the Father! You have illumined the whole creation.”

Likewise the feast of Theophany is a feast of light. In fact the two feasts are like a twin feast. In the beginning, they were celebrated on the same day as the feast of Theophanies—a series of manifestations of God: the entrance of the Son of God in to the world and his manifestation to the shepherds and the Magi; then the manifestation of the Holy Trinity on the occasion of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, which we celebrate today. So we go on singing in this present feast: “O Creator of the world, you appeared in the world in order to shine upon those who live in darkness… The One who clothes Himself with light as with a robe…today is clothed in the streams of the Jordan.”

Baptism has been called “illumination” in the early Church, and there are still some remnants of that in our Lenten Liturgies, as we refer to the catechumens as “those who are preparing for illumination.” But even we who have received the sacramental illumination stand in need of an ongoing enlightenment by the grace of the Holy Spirit, who leads us to all truth, all love, by immersing us in all the mysteries of Christ—and for this it will take our whole lives just to begin this endless journey into the inexhaustible life and love of God.

This is a light-bearing feast, for it is an epiphany, a manifestation of the Light—the Light from Light, True God from True God—in the flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ. Today’s feast is not his entry into the world, but the beginning of his mission, and so it is a fuller revelation. As the Lord Jesus rises up from the baptismal river, the Father speaks and presents Him as his beloved Son, and the Holy Spirit both ratifies the Father’s word and completes the revelation of the All-holy Trinity. It is so concisely recounted in the Gospel, yet what an incredible experience it must have been! The heavens opened and God spoke, the Spirit visibly descended from on High, and the Son was anointed for his mission to save the world and bring it back to the glory of the Father.

Yet for all that, this experience is not the full glorification of the Son. His work was still ahead of Him. The Father and the Spirit shed their glorious light upon Him and presented Him to the world as its Savior, but the Son’s role at this point in his life was to reveal something else: the humility of God.

I’d like to quote here a beautiful passage from Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis' commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, on what it means that Christ has come, not to receive glory, but to enter into our sin and misery, showing us the way back to the Father.

“Now the wholly unexpected occurs. That more powerful One, whom John has declared to be the cosmic Winnower coming after him to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, himself comes to request John’s inferior and symbolic baptism of water. The One to whom man’s mind and heart must turn in a gesture of repentance Himself teaches man that gesture by submitting to his own minister… He lays aside his glory on the banks of the Jordan and, for the sake of man, prefers nakedness and the chill of muddy waters in the desert to the adoration of angelic choirs. God’s holiness must descend to the level of man, if man is to be inflamed by its fire. Before He utters any teaching, Christ’s first revelation of the interior being of God occurs in this gesture of humility. From now on, how can the creature consider itself worthless in the sight of the Creator, if the Creator has shown his predilection for his creature by really condescending to its level, deep in the purifying waters of the Jordan, where sins are drowned? From now on the creature will forever be haunted by the dignity the Creator has shown it to have, if it will only take the path of penance and regeneration.”

John does not really understand this; indeed, how could he? Not only did he not have the fullness of the revelation of the new covenant, he was quite rightly clear on the fact that it was Jesus who should baptize him! John knew he was a servant, and so he was put to confusion when the Master approached as an ordinary man, undistinguishable from the sinners coming to be baptized. But what John did not understand, and what we also may still not fully understand, is that in manifesting humility the Master was revealing the essence of what it was to be the Master—He was showing the face of God in such a profound way that no one was prepared to recognize it. But this is the natural fruit of the Incarnation, which in turn is an expression of the inner life of the Trinity, total self-giving love. The Son of God emptied Himself to take the form of a servant, for our salvation. Should He not then associate with the lowly? Should He not love us the only way a divine Person can—wholly, without limit, without counting the cost?

This was all part of God’s great plan for our salvation. Jesus knew that John didn’t quite get it, so He simply said, “Give in for now. We must do this if we are to fulfill all righteousness.” Thus He makes John a partner in this divine act: We must do this, He said. So John did the Master’s bidding, even though it may have seemed incomprehensible to Him—and we have as testimony liturgical texts in which John says things like, “How can a hand of straw touch the divine Fire?” But immediately John saw the light—the Uncreated Light of God covering the creation and bearing the voice of the eternal Father to those who were blessed to witness this awe-inspiring event. What must John have thought then? Perhaps He realized that the coming of the Christ into the world was not to rid it of evil by immediately destroying all evildoers, but rather to reveal the humble love of God and thus attract sinners to repentance, so they freely abandon their sin, not as a reaction to intimidating threats. For if God is not loved freely, He is not loved at all.

This is what we are talking about when we say that Christ has come to illumine the world, that He is the Light of the world. To speak of Christ as the Light cannot be to limit this concept to extraordinary manifestations or the mystical visions of ascetical cave-dwellers. Christ is the Light when He reveals to us who God is, what God is like, and He does this on every page of the Gospels. Christ didn’t receive baptism in the Jordan just so that there would be a brilliant manifestation of divine power and glory, but primarily to say that divine glory first manifests itself in divine kenosis, the humble self-sacrificing love which characterized all that Jesus said and did. That is why the Father was well pleased with Him and wanted all the world to know it.

To me, the most astounding thing is not that the Son of God possesses an utterly incomprehensible and blindingly magnificent glory, but that, as Erasmo said, He would lay it aside at the banks of the Jordan, lowering Himself to the position of an ordinary sinner seeking baptism, as a pledge and guarantee that He would take all of our sins upon Himself, immersing them in the sacred river of his Precious Blood, as his incredible love reached its full expression in the epiphany of divine glory revealed in the abasement of the Cross.

Sometimes I think we are like John as Jesus approached for baptism. We don’t get it. We don’t understand how much He loves us, how far He is willing to go to save us, and that humbling Himself for our sake is not to renounce his divinity but to fulfill it.

Christ is baptized in the Jordan and the Father is well pleased. The Spirit rests upon Him in joy. Let us give in and accept his plan for our salvation, becoming humble servants—even unto the Cross—and thus sharing in his divine life and joy.