Episco-Fact #123
January 10, 2019

What is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and why is it one of the feasts when Baptism is especially appropriate?

The Feast of the baptism of our Lord commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John to Baptizer, who, if Luke is correct (the other Gospels are silent on this issue), is the cousin of Jesus, through his mother Elizabeth, who was the cousin of Mary.

Each of the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have an account of Jesus' baptism and each one handles this moment differently because of the awkwardness of Jesus, the superior spiritual, moral, and faith exemplar, submits to the John the Baptist, a spiritual model not exceeded among humans, but not the son of God. This would have been an inconceivable scenario in the ancient world, where the teacher is greater than the pupil. Therefore, in the synoptic Gospels, each author deemphasizes the place of John. This is done in Luke (4:21ff,) by the author getting the Baptizer out in the Jordan baptizing, having him state that one more powerful than he would baptize with water and the Holy Spirit, and having the scene of him actually baptizing Jesus removed. Luke talks around the baptism itself, but the results are evident and referred to.

This feast was traditionally celebrated within the Octave of Epiphany (an eight-day liturgical period for celebrating a feast, the feast itself is counted), therefore on January 13 of every year. On the Episcopal calendar, it has been agreed that Epiphany is a fixed date celebration and the Feast of the Baptism will be celebrated and observed on the first Sunday following Epiphany, which means that it can be observed as early as January 6 or as late as January 13. It will not be until 2030 that we have the confluence of an Epiphany Sunday and a January 13 Feast of the baptism again.

For a long time, the rich tradition of baptismal celebrations with large numbers of candidates was lost in the Episcopal Church. "Private" Baptisms were the norm, although no baptism is truly private (there has to be at least one sponsor and a priest beside the candidate) and any service of the Church has to be open to all members. But the BCP 1979 recaptured, at least rubrically and liturgically, the Classical Church notion of initiation into the body at public services of the Church. In reemphasizing the binding of the Candidate to the Body of Christ, the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music reclaimed the tradition of great Baptismal Days for the community. In the history of the Church, those days of emphasis, in descending order of normative practice are the Great Vigil of Easter, the Feast of Pentecost (Whitsunday), The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and All Saints Day. Because Jesus submitted to Baptism, even if it was a different baptism, the Church leaders sensed that all Christians should be willing to humbly submit to this church commitment.

David