By the Parting of the Waters: Reflections on Epiphany and Baptism

Holidays, Religion — By on March 17, 2014 at 7:00 am

On January 6th, my church celebrated the ancient Christian feast day of Epiphany. On this day, as this article from the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) discusses, we commemorate Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River, the revelation of Christ as both human and a member of the divine Trinity, and the subsequent sanctification of mankind and all creation because of this fact. This year, I was particularly struck by the significance of water and baptism in Christian spirituality and tradition. (The OCA article provides a more in-depth explanation of the holiday and provides the source for much of what I say here.)

Epiphany means “shining forth” or “manifestation” (it’s also sometimes called Theophany, meaning “vision of God”). The feast bears this name because it celebrates Christ’s baptism, in which we find a quintessential manifestation of the Trinity:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’ — Mark 1:9-11

The service also includes readings from Isaiah that foretell Christ’s coming and the salvation of the world; included is the passage in Isaiah referenced in the Gospel account of Christ’s baptism that speaks of John the Baptist as a voice crying in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord,” (Isaiah 40:3). While there is much to glean from these passages, I’d like to highlight the language of water in particular:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing…the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water… — Isaiah 35:1-2, 7

‘For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.’ — Isaiah 55:10-11

‘Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.’ With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. — Isaiah 12:2-3

In these verses, water is presented as the source of rejuvenation for dry and thirsty grounds and is compared to the word of God that incites spiritual growth and accomplishes his purpose in the world. Finally, in my personal favorite verse among this group of passages, salvation is called a well: with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. I love the verse’s poetry, and the metaphor makes sense: wells are sources of water, which is the source of life. Spiritually speaking, salvation in Christ is the ultimate source of life, and we must draw upon him continually, daily, faithfully. This verse also beautifully captures the fact that salvation is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process of growth and sanctification.

The overall message is clear: just like water, the salvation of Christ is necessary for life, growth, healing, and flourishing. Jesus calls what he has to offer the world “living water” when he speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well:

Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?’Jesus said to her, ‘Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ — John 4:10-14

As Christ, God became man in order to redeem mankind. Epiphany celebrates and commemorates this, but it also reminds us that God has dominion not only over humanity, but also over all of creation, as the OCA article points out. He is the author of all life and everything that has being, and when God took on a material form he redeemed every part of the material world:

In the Lord’s epiphany all creation becomes good again, indeed ‘very good,’ the way that God himself made it and proclaimed it to be in the beginning when ‘the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters’ (Genesis 1:2). —  “Epiphany”

Christ brings salvation to the world through his dual nature, and this nature is made manifest at his baptism. Similarly, it is through baptism that Christians participate in the saving work of Christ’s death and resurrection, entering into new spiritual life. As Paul writes in Romans,

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. — Romans 6:3-5

Living water, indeed.

As the Israelites were delivered from their bondage in Egypt through the Red Sea (Exodus 14), as they entered the promised land through the Jordan River (Joshua 3), so are we now delivered from sin and so do we enter into new life with Christ: by the parting of the waters.

Image via Wikimedia Commons


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