In the first week of the New Year, on 6 January, we celebrate the Epiphany, which is one of the three principal and oldest festival days of the Christian church (the other two are Easter and Christmas). The Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12) speaks of Magi, or wise men, who followed a star from the east to Bethlehem in search of a newborn King. As gentiles who acknowledge Christ’s divinity, the Magi play an essential role in the Epiphany, the manifestation of God to the world.
Roman Catholics mark the end of the Liturgical Christmas season with the celebration of the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which falls on the Sunday after the Epiphany (usually the second Sunday in January). So, within a short space of time, we are celebrating two very important events.
The Baptism in the Jordan
Centuries ago, the baptism of Christ was the primary event celebrated as part of the feast of the Epiphany, along with the visit of the Magi and other occasions from the childhood of Jesus. Epiphany means ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance’. The baptism marks the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus, but it is also part of his manifestation because it signals that God has broken into human history in a unique way. At the moment Jesus is baptized there are significant events: the heavens open, God’s Spirit in the form of a dove descends on his Son and the voice of God is heard saying:
“This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”
The baptism carried out by John was full immersion in the River Jordan. Baptism was not a new idea. There is evidence that a monastic group called the Essenes used baptism at their monastery at Qumran as a type of ritual cleansing. Some Biblical scholars think that John may have had connections with this community.
Matthew records that when Jesus asked John to baptize him John was reluctant to do so. This could be because baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, yet Jesus is the Son of God and therefore sinless. Jesus is the more worthy person John has been telling people about so John does not believe he has the right to baptize him.
In asking his cousin to baptize him, Jesus fully embraced what it means to be a human person with all humanity’s limitations and suffering. That God’s Son humbled himself in this way shows that he chose humility as the way he would redeem us. Becoming one of us was the highest compliment God could have given the human race.
The Christmas story tells us that Joseph and Mary sought a shelter for the birth of their little child and all doors were closed to them, with the exception of a stable on the outskirts of the city of Bethlehem. God would come among us in a space most abandoned and unoccupied. Jesus arrived as the lowest and the least of humanity. Then, after spending 30 years in obscurity living in an out-of-the-way village, he appears quietly in the company of sinners who were receiving John’s baptism of repentance.
Good News for the Gentiles
Although the birth of Jesus happened without fanfare or grandeur the visit of the Magi adds a touch of the exotic to the crib scene. By the Middle Ages most believed that the three Magi who visited the manger were Kings and that they symbolized the three ages of Man (childhood, manhood, and old age).
In keeping with Matthew’s account that they journeyed from the East, writers first suggested that they were from Persia. Later commentators proposed that they represented the three known Continents: Europe Asia and Africa.
The birth of Christ heralds a new order and a new truth. The Kings from the Orient will never be the same after witnessing the arrival of Jesus with his message for all humankind. Yet they still must return to their kingdoms. The poet T.S. Eliot captures well what they must have felt in his poem, The Journey of the Magi when he writes that they were going back to …
“an alien people clutching their gods”.
They have been privileged to look upon the face of the one true God.
At Christmas, we have seen the human birth of the Word incarnate by the Virgin Mary.
In the mystery of the Epiphany, we meditate on Christ’s manifestation to all nations that were represented by the Magi, the wise men from the far East, who come to adore the Child.
In the mystery of Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan, we again encounter the truth of the Lord’s incarnation. Jesus’s baptism is in fact his definitive manifestation as the Messiah or Christ to Israel, and as the Son of the Father to all nations.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan