In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. As soon as he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.”
This is a wonderfully Trinitarian scene – with God the Father expressing delight and affirmation upon God the Son as God the Holy Spirit bursts from heaven and descends upon him like a dove. All three persons of the Holy Trinity are united in will and purpose, and are fully involved in this scene. This is a glimpse of heavenly joy presented for our benefit – the joy of seeing Father, Son and Holy Spirit at work in the world together in the incarnate presence, ministry and work of Jesus. Hippolytus, writing in the early 3rd century in his ‘Discourse on the Holy Theophany’, offers a way of looking at this scene which may deepen our joy still further, focusing on the phrase “he saw the heavens being torn open”.
Hippolytus comments that the heavens had previously been shut: inaccessible, invisible to us, a place we may never ascend to. He writes that, when seeing the heavens being opened to Jesus, “a reconciliation took place between the visible and the invisible. The celestial orders were filled with joy, the diseases of the world were healed, secret things were made known, and enemies were restored to cordiality and concord.” This, Hippolytus says, is a scene not only of Jesus being baptized, but is a snapshot of him making new the old creation. This moment of baptism is a freeze-frame of Christ’s work of reconciliation. This scene reveals the unknowable being made known; the invisible made visible; alienated humanity restored into the glory of the dance of the Trinity and the eternal praises of heaven.
As the Spirit falls upon Jesus, a glimpse of the joy of heaven which Jesus opens to humanity is revealed – a joy which can be ours in the power of that same Spirit. As Paul writes in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” As Hippolytus comments, in Christ’s work of renewing creation which this scene reveals, alienated humanity is brought back under the sceptre and protection of God’s adoption.
God the Father is well-pleased to see God the Son being baptized into our humanity and God the Holy Spirit bursts from the delight of heaven to anoint the scene. As we ponder the world’s continuing need of Christ, we can celebrate this joy of heaven to earth come down, knowing that this joyful, eternal dance of the Trinity is what we are called to join.
Nick Morgan is the Priest in Charge of the Bramham Benefice in the Diocese of York.