Today, in the Western lung of the Catholic Church, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ. On January 6, the Eastern lung of the Church celebrated the same event, however, their day is titled the Feast of the Holy Theophany of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. Although there are different names for the same event, they commemorate one sign – Jesus Christ, who did not need to be baptized, chose to be baptized by St. John the Baptist in the Jordan River to reveal to us his self-emptying act. The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1223-1225 states,
“All the Old Covenant pre-figurations find their fulfillment in Christ Jesus. He begins his public life after having himself baptized by St. John the Baptist in the Jordan.After his resurrection Christ gives this mission to his apostles: “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.” Our Lord voluntarily submitted himself to the baptism of St. John, intended for sinners, in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus’ gesture is a manifestation of his self-emptying.The Spirit who had hovered over the waters of the first creation descended then on the Christ as a prelude of the new creation, and the Father revealed Jesus as his “beloved Son.”In his Passover Christ opened to all men the fountain of Baptism. He had already spoken of his Passion, which he was about to suffer in Jerusalem, as a “Baptism” with which he had to be baptized.The blood and water that flowed from the pierced side of the crucified Jesus are types of Baptism and the Eucharist, the sacraments of new life. From then on, it is possible “to be born of water and the Spirit” in order to enter the Kingdom of God.”
On January 1, when the Latin Church was celebrating the Mary, the Great Mother of God, the Eastern Rites of the Church (and the Orthodox) celebrated the Circumcision of Our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, which according to Jewish custom would have occurred eight days after his Nativity in Jerusalem (although he was born in Bethlehem).
Although Jesus did not need circumcision or baptism, he chose to participate in both because he wanted to become like one of us and be our example in all things. The Metropolitan Cantor Institute (The Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Pittsburg) says,
“According to the Law of the Old Testament, as given to Moses, each male child was to be circumcised on the eighth day from birth. This was considered both a mark ‘in the flesh’ of belonging to the covenant that God made with the people of Israel, and also a ritual purification…the circumcision of infants under the Old Covenant made it clear than the entire life of the Jew belonged to God. Even then, it was commonly known that the ‘inward circumcision’ of pure conduct and intent was even more important than the ‘outward circumcision’…According to the Fathers, Christ underwent circumcision for two reasons. In doing so, He kept the Law given by God perfectly, including this rite that incorporated a child into Israel; by doing this, He also “emptied himself” to become just like one of us, even though He was in need of no purification of any kind.”
Circumcision and Baptism are clearly connected in the Sacred Scriptures. In Deuteronomy 30:6 (read also Dt 10:16 and Jer 4:4, 9:26), it says, “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all you soul, and that you may live.”
The book of Deuteronomy states that the Lord God will be the one who will take the initiative with us. Although the old covenant plays an important role for the Jewish people, it does not cleanse your heart nor provides sanctifying grace. The New Law of Love, given to us by God Himself through the person of Jesus Christ, would cleanse us and be written on the hearts of man through Baptism.
The fulfillment of circumcision and the cleansing of the hearts of man in the New Covenant, through the Sacrament of Baptism, come to fruition on Pentecost. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that we receive Baptism and the new law is written upon our hearts. Acts of the Apostles 2:37-39 states,
“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart [emphasis mine here and below], and said Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do? And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
All that Jesus gave to the Apostles during his 3-year public ministry is given to them through the power of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The authority given to St. Peter in Matthew 16 is now brought to fulfillment. The New Law of Love, the Beatitudes, fulfills the old law, the Ten Commandments. The new law is written on the new hearts of the faithful through the Sacrament of Baptism. Jeremiah 31 says, “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant…I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts…” (vs. 31, 33).
Prophesizing the coming of Baptism, Ezekiel 36 states, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (vs. 25-26).
In the New Covenant, which Jesus Christ established with us, the law of God is written on our hearts and we no longer have hearts made of stone, but we have hearts made of flesh, filled with the sanctifying grace of God.