Monday, January 9, 2017

Feast of the Baptism of Jesus

Today is the feast of the Baptism of Jesus. It's a feast that holds great meaning for me, mainly due to the interpretation given to the Baptism of Jesus by St Cyril of Alexandria.

Cyril is not exactly en vogue in the English speaking world, and hasn't been since the 19th century when Charles Kingsley's historical novel Hypatia laid the heinous death of the famous female philosopher, Hypatia, at the feet of Cyril of Alexandria. Ever wonder why you don't find Cyril in the Nicene/Post Nicene Fathers collection of texts? Many, myself included, think it is because of Kingsley's novel.  And negative depictions of Cyril continue.

Cyril is also unpopular because of the perception that political concerns were primarily behind his vociferous attacks on Nestorius; a perception that, in my opinion, Henry Chadwick definitively debunked in 1951, but the perception continues unabated.

The reality is that Cyril was not the most saintly individual. He could, in fact, be a fairly horrible person. His treatment of Alexandrian Jews, for example, was - to put it lightly - deplorable.

But I also think that Cyril was a theologian par excellence who made significant contributions
beyond Christology, and his interpretation of the baptism of Jesus and his reception of the Holy Spirit is particularly worth reading, especially on this Feast. While Cyril's reading of Jesus' baptism lacks the kind of critical weight expected by moderns of biblical interpreters, it paints what I think is a stunning theological picture.
The problem of Jesus' baptismal reception of the Holy Spirit for Cyril was this: If Jesus needed to receive the Holy Spirit at baptism, doesn't that mean that Jesus is less than divine?  Cyril addresses this by suggesting that we need to understand Jesus' reception of the Spirit as having profound implications for our salvation.  He does this by connecting the event of Jesus' baptism with the creation account in Genesis, and particularly with Genesis 2:7, which recounts that God "breathed the breath of life" into Adam.

Cyril interprets this "breath of life" to be the Holy Spirit, and argues that God's breathing of the Spirit into the first human demonstrates that we were created to exist in intimacy with God.  We were created to partake of the divine nature, to participate in the divine, and so to attain the beauty of likeness with God.

Sin disrupted this intimacy.  Cyril describes the fall, not as a descent into depravity and sinfulness, but as a loss of the Holy Spirit.  Through the exercise of the freedom God gave us, humankind shrank from intimacy with the divine and so lost the Holy Spirit.

Cyril argues that one of the central purposes of the Incarnation was our recovery of intimacy with God through the Holy Spirit, and it is this recovery that Jesus' baptism accomplishes.  Through the Incarnation, the Son of God made man becomes the Second Adam, and at his baptism, the Second Adam receives the Holy Spirit, not for his own sake, but for the sake of all humanity.

While the first Adam lost the Holy Spirit through sin, the sinless Second Adam receives the Holy Spirit and preserves the Holy Spirit that all humankind might once again experience transforming intimacy with God through partaking of the divine nature.  Cyril actually suggests that Jesus' representative reception of the Spirit is as significant for our salvation as his death and resurrection, for it is through our renewed participation in the Holy Spirit that humanity is transformed to become like Jesus Christ.

Aspects of Cyril's interpretation of Jesus' baptism are to be found in thinkers prior to him (notably Irenaeus and Athanasius), but none set the event of Jesus' reception of the Spirit within the entire narrative of humanity's creation and fall as does Cyril.

Cyril's interpretation reminds us to remember our own baptisms on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, to remember that baptism - at least within my own Roman Catholic tradition - is primarily to be understood as the gift of God's self to us, the gift of the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit who moulds us to become like the God who is Love.