From the Gospel according to St. Matthew: "And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove, and alighted on him; and lo, a voice from heaven saying,'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'"
And so this is where the manger leads, this is where the star leads. The shepherds have gone home long ago to marvel for a short while and then go about their business as usual. The Magi have returned to their strange lands, knowing what they have seen, a birth, a child and yet it felt like death, something died in them, and in its place the growth of new life, a life that gripped them but which they could not communicate to others. But this is also where the angels' song leads. They are silent now, but the heavens once again open, but this time it is the Father who speaks these words of epiphany: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
John the Baptist is a far cry from the mysterious, elegant, wonderful Magi, and yet it is this encounter in the Jordan river that opens the heavens, a river which is not one of the major rivers of the world, not one of the rivers in Bernini's famous fountain in the Piazza Navona. This river is a mere trickle when compared to the Ganges, the Danube, the Nile and the Plata. And yet this encounter in this river is where the Birth and the Star lead and marks the embrace of the Old and New Testaments. At the same time it marks the receding of the Old and the coming into being of the New. This encounter is truly a moment of epiphany, truly a moment of manifestation, but this time it is a manifestation not of the Christ Child to the Gentiles but rather of the very person, the very identity of the Jesus who is born of the Virgin Mary, the Jesus whose history is embedded in the history of the Jews, the chosen people of God, the God in the flesh who has come to restore, to renew, to save.
He comes with the throng who are being baptized by John for the repentance of their sins. He comes, the babe of Bethlehem now grown into the man who is the Mission of God. He comes to submit himself to his Father, to manifest himself to the Father, to receive from the Father the favor which was his from the beginning, to submit himself to the Spirit, the Spirit that was his from the beginning. And so he faces John in the river, and as their eyes meet John remembers how he leapt in his mother's womb, the glance of womb to womb, the recognition filled with joy, and now the recognition, yes, of joy, but for John also of knowing that the time had come, the time for him to step aside, to diminish, amazed that he could do this for Jesus. And so he takes Jesus, and he plunges him under the water. The people surrounding the baptism probably do not notice the beginning of a New Creation at that very time. John holds Jesus under the water for a few seconds, seconds that are eternity, that time that it took for Mary to utter her "Fiat" when all creation held its breath to hear her word. And now in the plunge of the body of God into this water, it is creation itself that finds itself in contact with this holy flesh and trembles as the holiness of God resonates with the precession frequency of the atoms themselves, preparing matter itself to be the vehicle of the Divine, of the Grace of God; as the molecules of water in that river become more precious than gold, frankincense and myrrh, as the water in the river begins to leap and sing and dance: "Benedicite opera omnia Domini", "Bless the Lord, all ye works of the Lord", as the fish and the dolphins and the whales with exulting spouts join in the song, as water itself, so common, yet no necessary to life, so cooling, so cleansing, so refreshing becomes the vehicle for salvation.
And in that plunge in that river, in that second of eternity, in that time of deprivation of air which smells of death, in that plunge Jesus confronts and accepts his mission, his mission to save. In that plunge into death he accepts his death, his death on the Cross. And in that plunge the scummy dirt of sin that floats everywhere in that water sticks to him, he is transformed into the suffering servant whose countenance is too terrible to look upon. He becomes sin for all, he who is without sin. And in that plunge he sees with terrible clarity the power of death and the horror of hell, and his heart breaks with love, and he rises out of the water like Adam seeing Even for the first time: "At last flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone!" He rises, the bridegroom rising to embrace his bride, his arms stretched out as on a cross to embrace those who would be regenerated, those who would be sanctified. And as he breaks the surface of the water the rainbow of Noah pierces the heavens, and the heavens open, the heavens that Adam's sin had closed, and from the heavens comes the unmistakable, sure, absolute, powerful voice of God. And that voice speaks to Him who is the Word, the voice identifies him as the one who emptied himself out as God, his beloved Son, as the once-and-for-all manifestation, the Epiphany of God, his beloved Son from all eternity, born of the Virgin Mary, the one who will show who he is by changing water into wine, by healing the sick and the blind, by raising the dead, the one who will make bread into his Body, the one who will engage in mortal combat with Satan. And he rises from that water the Lamb of God who will be sacrificed for our sins, and the Lamb of God who reigns triumphant in heaven.
Gracious now, behold him arise, King and God and Sacrifice,
Heaven sings alleluia, alleluia; alleluia the earth replies.
Oh, star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light!
Father Richard G. Cipolla