This weekend we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. We call it Epiphany or Theophany because now His divinity is revealed and expressed in no uncertain terms. The knowledge that Jesus is God tells us something about who He is, but it also reveals to us something about Who God is. In the hymns of the feast we sing that “the Worship of the Trinity is made manifest.” God is not only One, but Three. God is now not only Spirit, but flesh.
And what is John the Baptist’s response when he sees Jesus wade out and stand before Him, waiting to be baptized? He tells Jesus, “Wait, you’re doing it wrong!” Like when you see someone bite into a Kit Kat candy bar without first breaking off the pieces. NO! THAT’S NOT HOW YOU EAT IT! “Jesus, you’re doing it wrong.” St. John says. “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” “Tut, tut,” says Jesus,”Let’s just do it this way for now.”
This isn’t the first time someone has tried to tell God how to do His business. Moses was sure God had the wrong number when he answered the phone and the burning bush told him to go have a face-to-face with Pharaoh. Moses had a whole list of reasons why God was wrong about that: he couldn’t speak well, He had no authority, they wouldn’t believe him. Wait, God, you’re doing it wrong. But God insisted, and so he went.
Nor was this the last time someone would question Jesus’ judgment. St. Peter himself did so right before Jesus’ crucifixion. When Jesus wrapped himself with a towel and began washing the feet of His disciples, he came to Peter who said, “Jesus, you’re doing it wrong.” Jesus replies that “I know you don’t understand just now, but you’ll get it later.” Peter, however, persists. “You will never wash my feet.” Only when Jesus tells Peter he would have no part of Him otherwise, does he relent.
Both John the Baptist and Peter tried to correct Jesus because each time Jesus took the servant’s position. In the first case it is a passive position. Jesus consents to be baptized and allows someone else, John the Baptist, to be the master of the event. He does it, He says, to fulfill all righteousness.
In the second Jesus again takes the servant’s place but in an active position. He seeks to serve his disciples by washing their feet. In this case it’s implied, rather than stated, that this is how righteousness is fulfilled.
Jesus was washed in order to Himself wash others. This is a model for us. The Son of God became incarnate to renew humanity and to show us what a perfect man is and does. He doesn’t insist on the high places, he doesn’t shun the dirty work, he makes his fellow men his principle concern. First by showing solidarity with them and then by crouching down and washing their feet.
How often do we take the opposite approach and say to God, “Stop it, you’re doing it wrong?” We say it every time we commit an act of so-called piety simply for the sake of being seen or to gratify ourselves. Like John claiming to be unworthy of baptizing Jesus and Peter claiming to be unworthy to be washed by Him, we say things like “God willing” when we really mean “I hope things go my way.” For instance, occasionally someone’s reply when asked how he’s doing is simply “Thank God.” Thank God for what? It is altogether appropriate to thank God in every circumstance, but then why not answer the question? “I’m doing well, thank God.” Or “I’m having a tough time, but thank God I’m getting through it.” We must take some responsibility for the conditions with which we contend and how we do so. We can’t always blame God. It’s an attitude of piety that inadvertently acts pridefully by taking the passive role when it ought to be active, the way that St John the Baptist did.
The other way we try to tell God he’s doing it wrong is by being active when we ought to be passive. We cannot by our own efforts make ourselves worthy of God’s grace, worthy of Holy Communion or of any of the sacraments. No matter how many prostrations we make, no matter how many self-deprecating acts of piety, no matter how many times we come to church, if we are not plugged into and participating in the sacramental life of the Church then we are leaving that grace—the only means for becoming like Christ—on the shelf unused. We must be washed by Jesus as St Peter was whether we like it or not. It happens first in our baptism, and then is constantly renewed through Holy Confession and Holy Communion.
St John Chrysostom offers another way to renew our baptism in addition to confession and repentance:
But let us all humble our own souls by alms-giving and forgiving our neighbors their trespasses, by not remembering injuries, nor avenging ourselves. [Because] if we continually reflect on our sins, no external circumstances can make us elated: neither riches, nor power, nor authority, nor honor; nay, even should we sit in the imperial chariot itself, we shall sigh bitterly.
If we only ever focus on how unworthy we are, then we will never get up off of our pallet, pick it up, and get to work.
As we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, we should remember our own baptisms, and how we participate with Jesus in His death, burial and resurrection. We can do that best by evaluating the present cleanliness of our baptismal garments and then washing them in the tears of repentance in Holy Confession. Moreover, we should think how we, like Jesus, are baptized to serve. We begin by being receptive to the Holy Spirit in the Sacraments, we continue by serving and loving our neighbors, and we will end—if we persist (Not “God willing” because we know that it’s His desire)—by participating in that eternal communion in the Kingdom of Heaven.
We must stop saying, “Jesus, you’re doing it wrong.” So that when the time comes Christ will say to us, “Congratulations, you did it right.”