The Prayer Book tradition and the Baptism of our Lord

In contemporary liturgical calendars and lectionaries, yesterday celebrated the Baptism of our Lord.  In the Eucharistic lectionary of the Prayer Book tradition, the gospel for yesterday - the First Sunday after the Epiphany - was not an account of the Lord's Baptism.  In fact, this account does not appear in any of the gospel readings in the traditional one year lectionary for the Eucharist.

Is this not a considerable (to say the least) oversight? After all, it is not as if the Prayer Book tradition does not recognise the salvific significance of our Lord's Baptism.  The Litany states:

By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation,
Good Lord, deliver us.
Why, then, its omission from the Gospel readings?

To some extent, the office lectionaries within the Prayer Book tradition address this issue.  The Church of England's 1922 Alternative Table of Lessons, Ireland 1926, and Canada 1962 provide for St Luke's account of the Baptism of our Lord to be read at Mattins on both the Epiphany. In PECUSA 1928 this is the New Testament lection at Evensong on the Eve of the Epiphany.  England's 1922 Alternative Table and Ireland 1926 also provide for St John's account to be read at Mattins on the First Sunday after the Epiphany.

Considering that the Prayer Book tradition intends the bulk of our engagement with Scripture to occur at Mattins and Evensong, it is not then the case that the Lord's Baptism is neglected in the context of the celebration of the Epiphany.

But is this a good enough explanation for its ommission from the one year Eucharistic lectionary?  This lectionary, after all, is intended to provide a focus - through Advent to the end of the Sundays after Epiphany, and during Lent and Eastertide unto Trinity Sunday - on the defining events of our salvation.  The Litany clearly identifies the Lord's Baptism as a salvific event, which means that it should be a part of the Church's reflection as we enter into the mystery of salvation.

The Lord's Baptism is indeed part of this reflection in the Prayer Book tradition - but in a perhaps more potent manner than inclusion in the one year Eucharistic lectionary.  In the opening prayer in the 1662 rite of Baptism, the priest says:

by the Baptism of thy well-beloved Son Jesus Christ, in the river Jordan, didst sanctify Water to the mystical washing away of sin.

While this prayer is not in PECUSA 1928, it is in Ireland 1926 and Canada 1962.  Derived from Luther's rite, it establishes, at the outset of the the Baptism, a relationship between the Baptism of our Lord and our baptism.   This echoes a deeply Augustinian theme:

And was it needful for the Lord to be baptized? ... And what profit was there that he received the baptism of a servant? That you might not disdain to receive the baptism of the Lord - Tractate IV(13) on St John's Gospel.

For Augustine, a key way in which the Lord's Baptism contributes to our salvation is by calling us to "saving baptism".  We are not to dismiss the ordinary waters of baptism, ministered by a frail servant, in the pursuit of a higher, 'spiritual' vision.  Augustine imagines the Lord saying:

I know that there will be proud ones in my future people; I know that some men then will be eminent in some grace, so that when they see ordinary persons baptized, they, because they consider themselves better, whether in continence, or in almsgiving, or in doctrine, will perhaps not deign to receive what has been received by their inferiors. It was needful that I should heal them, so that they should not disdain to come to the baptism of the Lord, because I came to the baptism of the servant - Tractate V(8).

Augustine, then, highlights how the Lord receiving baptism is an icon of the dignity of our own baptism, the baptism received by "ordinary persons" at the hands of  the "impure" clergy despised by the Donatists.

Each time the Sacrament of Baptism is administered in the parish, the Baptism of the Lord is set before us.  We are baptised because, for us and our salvation, He received baptism.  This also proclaims the profound nature of the Church's sacramental unity with the Lord.  In the words of Andrew Davison, "we can say ... that Christ not only instituted the sacraments but also that he in some sense received them".

We might suggest, then, that the absence of the Gospel accounts of the Lord's Baptism from the Prayer Book Eucharistic lectionary is not because it is disregarded in the economy of salvation, but rather because it is encountered again and again in the life of the parish through the administration of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

Two other points in the Baptismal rite also highlight this.  Following the child being baptised, the Lord's Prayer is said, while the post-baptismal prayer of thanksgiving rejoices that the child is now "thine own Child by adoption".  What was manifested at the Baptism of our Lord - Thou art my beloved Son - is thus experienced in the lives of "ordinary persons", in the routine life of the parish, through the Sacrament of Baptism.

The Catechism also witnesses to this, connecting my Christian name to the reality bestowed in baptism, "wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God": our sacramental participation in Christ is a participation in Sonship of the Beloved manifested at His baptism.

In the Prayer Book tradition, the Baptism of our Lord is no yearly commemoration, but a lived reality encountered and experienced through the administration of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism in the parish.  The salvific import of the Lord's Baptism in the waters of the Jordan - whereby water was sanctified "to the mystical washing away of sin" - is proclaimed with each child brought to the font.


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