(Baptism of Jesus - St. Mark's, Venice, Italy)If you grew up in the Lutheran church using The Lutheran Hymnal, you never celebrated a Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. Instead, January 6th was the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord and the Sunday immediately following was the First Sunday after the Epiphany. On the Epiphany of Our Lord the Gospel reading was the account of the visit by the magi (Matthew 2:1-12). The Gospel for the First Sunday after the Epiphany was the visit by the boy Jesus to Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52).
However, when Lutheran Worship appeared in 1982, the First Sunday after the Epiphany became a subtitle and “The Baptism of Our Lord” became the central name for the day. The Gospel readings in both the one year and the (at that time brand new) three year lectionaries were the accounts of Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:4-11; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22). This trend continued when the current Lutheran Service Book appeared in 2006. Here the headings in the Altar Book and the bulletin insert have only “The Baptism of Our Lord” and the hymnal includes a specific proper preface for use in the Service of the Sacrament on this day.
There is never a question of whether the rites and associated parts of the Church’s worship, like the lectionary and church year, change. Change has occurred throughout the Church’s history and will continue to occur. Instead the real question is about how and why it occurs. The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord is a very good example of change which was rooted deeply in the Church’s past practice and emphasized an important biblical truth that had often been overlooked.
The word “Epiphany” is based on a Greek word that means “to appear.” During Epiphany we rejoice that the saving glory of God appeared in the world in Jesus Christ to save us. Beginning in the third century A.D. we learn about a Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6 in Egypt and the eastern Church. While the earliest evidence for the Feast of the Epiphany focused on the baptism of Jesus, by the fourth century this Feast of the Epiphany included the baptism, the birth of Jesus, the visit by the magi and Jesus’ miracle at Cana of turning water into wine (John 2:-12). Each of these were events in which the glory of God appeared in the Savior Jesus.
The western Church also began to observe the Feast of the Epiphany. Just as in the eastern Church, the earliest sermons in the west also spoke about these four events. In fact it was often called the “day of epiphanies” (dies epiphaniarum). Despite this similarity, the course of development led to a different focus in the east and west.
The churches at Rome and North Africa observed Dec. 25 as the feast of the incarnation when they celebrated the birth of Jesus. When the eastern Church adopted the Dec. 25 date from the west in the late fourth century A.D., she associated it with the nativity of the Lord and the visit by the magi. The baptism of Jesus and the miracle at Cana became the focus of Jan. 6
At the same time, since Rome only associated Dec. 25 with the nativity of Jesus, when she adopted the Jan. 6 date from the east, the visit by the magi became the only event associated with this feast. This became the practice in the western Church. The Gospel readings for the baptism of Jesus and the wedding at Cana were often read on nearby Sundays. Beginning at the end of the eighth century, Epiphany was given an octave day (the eighth day after a feast during which it was celebrated), and the Gospel lesson assigned was the baptism of Jesus.
During the eighteenth century, Roman Catholic churches in France began to observe the octave day of the Epiphany as the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. This feast became part of the Roman Catholic calendar in 1960. In turn, this development prompted the change that occurred in the1982 hymnal, Lutheran Worship.
In the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord we see a long and slow development in the life of the Church. When the First Sunday after the Epiphany became the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, it was a change. However, it was a change that was based upon a broad and rich history of practice in the Church. It was not a change created by one pastor for his congregation, but instead reflected the practices of churches and regions acting together.
But even more importantly, it also helped to hold up before the Church a central biblical truth. Scripture sets forth the baptism of Jesus as a key moment in God’s plan of salvation. It is not by chance that it marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The Spirit descends upon Jesus in his baptism. Peter says in Acts that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38). The language of “anointed,” from which we obtain the related word “Christ” (Greek for “anointed one,” just as Messiah means “anointed one” in Hebrew) tells us that Jesus is the Christ – the Messiah – who fulfills the various Old Testament passages that speak about God giving the Spirit (Isaiah 11:1-2; 42:1; 61:1-2).
Jesus explicitly claims this about himself when he reads Isaiah 61:1-2 in the synagogue at Nazareth and declares, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-20). Jesus descends from King David. But he was not anointed with olive oil. Instead he was anointed with the Spirit of God! And this means that he was the One who fulfills the prophet’s words about the shoot from the stump of Jesse upon whom the Spirit will rest (Isaiah 11:1-2):
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:3-9).As Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, God the Father says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). The Father speaks words from Isaiah 42:1:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.Yet these words reveal to us that Jesus is not just the Christ – the Anointed One. He is also the Servant of the Lord. And if he is the Servant, then he is also the suffering Servant of Isaiah chapter 53. He is the One about whom the prophet wrote:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken,smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5 ESV)Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his ministry as he takes on the role of the suffering Servant. He identifies himself with sinners in order to take our place on the cross. As Jesus said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV). From the time of his baptism, Jesus’ mission moves straight toward the cross. The devil’s temptation of Jesus occurs immediately after the baptism (Matthew 4:1-11) because the evil one is trying to derail Jesus’ mission by getting the Lord to serve himself instead of obeying the Father’s will and serving us.
At the very moment when Jesus begins his saving mission, the Holy Trinity is revealed clearly for the first time. We are reminded by the Baptism of Our Lord that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity tells us about more than just the inner relationship of the persons of the Trinity. The Holy Trinity tells us about who God is for us. Our very knowledge of the Trinity bears witness to the dramatic saving action of God on our behalf. We only know about the Trinity because the Father sent forth the Son who was incarnate by the work of the Holy Spirit. The Son entered into our world in order to save us, and this event has revealed to us that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To confess the Holy Trinity is to confess the God who has acted to save us.
And of course the revelation of the Holy Trinity at Jesus’ baptism calls to mind the Lord’s institution of Holy Baptism when he said:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)Jesus goes into the water in order to die for us on the cross. And now in the water of baptism we share in his saving death, just we also receive certainty that we will share in his resurrection on the Last Day (Romans 6:1-5).
These central truths of God’s revelation are found in the baptism of Jesus. Those mentioned here only scratch the surface of the theological reflection that the baptism of Jesus generated in the early Church (for an excellent study of this, see Kilian McDonnell, The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation). And yet, a Gospel text about the baptism of Jesus does not occur on a single page of The Lutheran Lectionary that was used with The Lutheran Hymnal. The Baptism of Jesus was completely absent. The change of adding the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord has in fact addressed an important oversight for the good of the Lutheran Church. Change does happen in the worship of the Church. And change can be good – when it occurs in the right way and for the right reason.