An excerpt from"Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies"
Yesterday when I was in church, celebrating with you as you kept the Forefeast of the day of Lights, I spoke on such themes as the occasion demanded and spoke to your charity about Christian baptism, which we have been deemed worthy to receive, that it is both a recognition of God and a promise to God. On the one hand it is faith in, and acknowledgment of, the truth in God; on the other, a covenant and a promise, effected through symbols, that our deeds, words and behaviour will be pleasing to God.
Because baptism is not just the recognition of God, but also a promise to turn back to Him and to do works that please Him, that is why Christ’s Forerunner and Baptist did not merely guide people towards acknowledging Christ, but also preached repentance and sought fruits worthy of repentance: righteousness, almsgiving, moderation, love and truth. And to make it clear that a promise to God is useless without deeds, and condemns a man, he held out the threat of an axe and drew attention to the unquenchable fire, saying “Every tree whith bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matthew 3.10). In addition, we explained to your charity the Baptist’s words to the Lord Himself when He came to be baptized. Out of reverence, John stepped back and excused himself from performing the deed, asking that he might rather receive baptism from the Lord. We also, however, related what the Lord said to him, giving him orders as a master does a servant, but at the same time revealing the mystery to him as a friend and relative according to the flesh, and pointing out His good reasons. Speaking to you on the occasion we reached the point where John, having been persuaded, let the Lord be baptized. There remains that part of the Gospel which has now been read in your hearing: “Jesus, when He was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon Him: and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3.16-17).
Great and exalted, brethren, is the mystery of Christ’s baptism contained in these few words. It is both difficult to contemplate and hard to interpret, and no less difficult to comprehend. But since it urges us to search the Scriptures (John 5.39), and take courage to investigate the power of the mystery, as far as it is accessible to us. Just as in the beginning, after God had said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1.26), when our nature was created in Adam, the life-giving Spirit, who was manifested and given to man by God breathing into him (Genesis 2.7), reavealed at once the tri-hypostatic character of the creative Divinity to the other creatures, which were brought into existence by the word alone of the Word and made manifest simply by the Father who spoke; so now that our nature was being re-made in Christ, when the Holy Spirit was revealed through His descent from the supracelestial regions upon the Lord being baptized in the Jordan, He disclosed the mystery of the most sublime and all-accomplishing Trinity, which is able to save reasonable creatures.
Why is the mystery of the Holy Trinity shown forth when man is formed and also when he is formed anew? Not just because man is, on earth, the only initiate into this mystery and the only creature to venerate it, but because he alone is in the image of the Trinity. Sensible and irrational animals have only a living spirit, which is incapable of independent existence, and is completely devoid of mind or reason. But the perfectly suprasensible angels and archangels, as they are intelligent and rational, have a mind and reason, but no quickening spirit, since they also lack bodies which would need to be animated by such a spirit. Man is the only creature who, in the image of the tri-hypostatic Being, has a mind, reason, and a spirit which gives life to his body, inasmuch as he also has a body which needs to be infused with life. When our nature was re-made in the Jordan, the most sublime and all-accomplishing Trinity was made manifest, as the archetype of the image in our soul. Therefore those who receive Christian baptism after Christ are baptized with three immersions, whereas John baptized with one immersion in the Jordan. To underline this point, Matthew says, “Jesus, when He was baptized, went up straightway out of the water” (Matthew 3.16).
“And lo,” it says, when He had just risen up from under the water, before He had stepped out, “the heavens were opened unto Him” (Matthew 3.16). Please make a mental effort, brethren, and focus your minds on what I am saying with the utmost care, that you may understand the power of the mystery of Christian baptism. For Christ’s going down into the water and His being underneath it, at the time of His baptism, foreshadowed His descent into Hades; and, accordingly, His coming up from under the water prefigured His resurrection from the dead.
As a fitting consequence, when He came up from the water the heavens were immediately opened unto Him. For at the time of His descent into Hades, He went under the earth for our sake, and on returning thence, He opened all things both to Himself and to us, not just things on or around the earth, but highest heaven itself, to which afterwards He ascended bodily, “whither the forerunner is for us entered” (Hebrews 6.20). Just as He foreshadowed the saving Passion through the mystical bread and cup, and then handed on this mystery to the faithful to perform for their salvation (First Corinthians 11.25; Luke 22.17-20), so He mystically foretold His descent into Hades and His ascent from there through this baptism of His, and afterwards passed on this sacrament to believers to perform that they may be saved. He allowed Himself what was painful and difficult, but bestowed on us communion in His sufferings right from the start through these painless means, causing us, according to the Apostle, to be “planted together in the likeness of His death” (Romans 6.5), that in due time we might also be vouchsafed the promised resurrection.
Having a soul and body like ours, which He assumed from us for our sake, by means of this body He underwent the Passion, death and burial for us, and showed forth the resurrection from the tomb that this same body might become immortal. He taught us to accomplish the bloodless sacrifice in remembrance of these events, that through it we might reap salvation. With His soul He went down to Hades and returned, making us all partakers in eternal light and life, and in token of this He handed on to us the practice of holy baptism, that through it we might harvest salvation; and indeed that through each of these two mysteries and through both elements, soul and body, we might be initiated into and receive the seeds of incorruptible life. For our whole salvation depends on these two sacraments, as the entire dispensation whereby God became man is summed up in them.
“The heavens were opened unto Him” (Matthew 3.16). It does not say “heaven” but “the heavens were opened unto Him,” meaning all of them, all the upper realms, lest, when you look up at anything in the sky above us, you might suppose there is something higher and more sublime than He who has now been baptized. Rather you should understand and recognize that there is one nature and dominion, which reaches from the space, infinite as itself, around and above the heavens, to the intermediate regions of the universe and our own furthest bounds, filling everything, leaving nothing outside itself, encompassing and embracing all things for their salvation, and extending beyond them all; and this nature is made known ineffably in three united Persons. “The heavens were opened unto Him,” that He might be manifestly shown to be the One who existed before the heavens, or rather, who was before anything existed, as being with God, as the Word and Son of God, whose Father was not born before Him, and as having a name with the Father, “which is above every other name” (Philippians 2.9) and all speech. For when all those earthly and heavenly things which appeared to be between Him and His Father in heaven were torn asunder and thrown to each side, He alone was shown to be united with the Father and the Spirit, as He existed with Them before anything was made.
From Homily Sixty, Delivered on the Holy Feast of Theophany: Disclosing the Mystery of Christ’s Baptism as far as is Possible. Translation from Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009)