December 27, 2010

The story of the Incarnation does not end with Christmas. In the next several days, the Church celebrates two of its most luxuriant feasts — the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord.

In the Eastern Church, these two manifestations of Christ's divinity are combined with a third event - the wedding feast at Cana — and celebrated as one feast. This should give us pause. The Epiphany and the latter two events were separated in time by more than 25 years. Yet they speak of one multi-faceted reality.

The Epiphany is a wondrous story that includes exotic "kings," an unusual star and the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These exotic visitors bow before the child Jesus, adore him and present him with these strange gifts.


It is a multifaceted event with many meanings. But in its liturgy, the Church focuses on the Epiphany as the manifestation of God's glory to all nations. Israel had expected a messiah who would lift up the nation to a pre-eminent place in the world. God, however, has given the Messiah for more than Israel.

This is evident in the Church's choice of readings for the great feast. The First Reading proclaims, "Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn" (Isaiah 60.3). St. Paul also emphasizes that, unlike the Old Testament, the mystery of God's grace is now given to all peoples. "The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel" (Ephesians 3.6).


Likewise, Jesus' baptism in the Jordan is an event with many dimensions. Again, the Church's liturgy focuses on the baptism as a manifestation of the universality of salvation.

At first glance, this may not be obvious from the Gospel texts. But Luke, in particular, goes to great lengths to present Jesus as the New Adam who undoes the evil unleashed throughout the world by the sin of the first Adam.

Luke's account of the Jordan is followed immediately by his genealogy of Jesus. Unlike Matthew, who emphasizes Jesus' role as the Davidic king and traces Jesus' ancestry back to Abraham, Luke describes Jesus' family tree right back to Adam, "the son of God" (3.23-38).

Immediately after the baptism, Jesus is led into the wilderness where he conquers the three sins that destroyed Israel in the desert — hunger, idolatry and putting God to the test. Jesus' first order of business after receiving the Holy Spirit at the Jordan is to undo the domination of sin that originated in Adam.

Likewise, Luke's great emphasis on Jesus' mother in his first two chapters alludes to God's promise to the serpent in Eden: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed" (Genesis 3.15).


The fullness of the Holy Spirit that Jesus received at the Jordan will, through his passion, death and resurrection, be breathed upon the people of the New Covenant. St. Paul states this explicitly: "As one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all" (Romans 5.18).

The New Adam inaugurates a new creation in which all who receive the Holy Spirit will share in divine life. The reign of sin is ended at the Jordan and the new life of grace is given to all through Christ's resurrection.

Here, the promise of Advent, the patient longing of the people for liberation, is fulfilled. Something much greater than a place of prominence for the Jewish nation has been achieved. The New Adam destroyed sin and won for all humanity the offer of a share in the very life of God himself.