The dauphins of France, the tsesareviches of Russia, and the princes of Wales rarely win hagiographic honors for their humility. History records many sovereign’s sons as wastrels and hedonists grown fat and diseased, as they display far more vices than virtues.
Sovereigns are waited upon by servants, often in fear and trembling. Royal personages command other human beings to do their bidding with scant regard for the needs, let alone basic humanity, of those ordered about in menial and thankless tasks offering the meanest remuneration. Sadism and cruelty are never far from the surface of such relationships. For a reminder of this we did not need Freud when we’ve long had St. Augustine giving the ever-memorable name to a universal sign of our fallen nature: libido dominandi.
None of this is behavior we see in the Son of the Most High God who comes to be baptized by John the Forerunner. The Son does not make his Theophany, his appearance among us, trailing a retinue of sycophants. He cracks no whip to make slaves do his bidding. He has not come to satiate himself with beautiful maidens who feed him various amuse-bouches. He commands no armies to slay his enemies and secure his throne and altar.
In a word, he eschews all the worldly appurtenances of power and glory. He refuses all the signs of success and wealth. He has no libidinal desires to dominate others.
John the Baptizer is incredulous at the reversal of roles we see played out in what Hans Urs von Balthasar called the theodrama of salvation. This incredulity, and this reversal of roles, are repeatedly describe in the texts of Matins and Vespers in the Byzantine tradition.
Consider, first, the fourth ode from Matins which puts the following questions in the mind at least of John the Baptist:
“Who has ever seen the sun that is bright by nature being cleansed?” the Preacher cried. “How then shall I wash You in the waters, You who are the Brightness of the Glory, the Image of the everlasting Father? How shall I that am grass touch with my hand the fire of Your divinity? For You are Christ, the wisdom and the power of God.”
This reversal of roles is so astonishing that even the heavenly courtiers are also amazed, as this Matins text underscores:
Today Christ has come to be baptized in the Jordan; today John touches the head of the Master. the powers of heaven are amazed as they behold the marvelous mystery. The sea saw it and fled; the Jordan at the sight was driven back.
The powers of heaven are amazed. I bet they are! One imagines that they might even have had their noses slightly out of joint, as my grandmother used to say. They stand daily around the throne and yet they are not invited in to baptize the Son of the sovereign God.
Instead, he chooses to leave them behind and make his katabasis towards these beings who are in essence a bizarre hybrid, a spirit-animal if you will. These uncouth creatures can lay hands on their Creator?
At least—the courtiers anxiously try to reassure themselves—one of these human beings will be tactfully trained for the task, speaking in dulcet tones and appropriately attired, right?
Wrong again. The baptism is performed by some shabbily dressed desert-dweller with a revolting taste for bugs (cf. Matt. 3:4), and a propensity to say wildly offensive things.
Are we even sure that John is sane? He points to Jesus but calls him a Lamb. Perhaps he’s gone off his head and is seeing things? If so, the Lord is risking scandal upon scandal by being baptized by a déshabillé madman. The lawyers and liturgists (is there a difference?) would fight forever over whether it was a valid and licit act.
Perhaps even more horrifying is that the sovereign’s son does not just allow himself to be manhandled by one of his creatures. He comes to offer himself for everybody. He comes to take upon himself our debts, which we have all incurred. He comes to kill our death by his own dying (as the axe and small tree in the bottom corner of many Byzantine icons of this feast foreshadow).
How does the one who can accrue no debts—for he is, as Herbert McCabe reminds us, richness and poverty at the same time—go about dealing with our debts? He does not grandly sweep in, clutching fistfuls of cash to flash about and buy off the bankers while huffily reminding us at every turn of all we owe him. Instead, he becomes an indentured slave on our account:
Wishing to save man gone astray,* You have not disdained to clothe Yourself in the form of a servant.* For it befitted You, as Master and God,* to take upon Yourself our nature for our sakes.* For You, O Deliverer, have been baptized in the flesh,* making us worthy of forgiveness.*
But we are not merely made grudging beneficiaries of the Lord’s forgiveness. He goes all the way, lavishing no less than divine status upon us, so that we too are now called dauphins. His baptism is ours, and as we are by water and the Holy Spirit made like the Son of God, so we also hear the words said of us that were said of him, as the feast’s troparion reminds us:
When You, O Lord, were baptized in the Jordan, worship of the Trinity was revealed; the voice of the Father bore witness to You, naming You the “beloved Son,” and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the Word’s certainty. Glory to You, O Christ God, who appeared and enlightened the world.
As we enter this new year, let us appreciate anew what it means to be such beloved ones of God who takes delight in us.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!