Yesterday Orthodox Christians on the Revised Julian Calendar celebrated the baptism of Christ in the Jordan river; today those on the Old Julian Calendar celebrate the Nativity of Christ in the flesh. Blessed Feasts to all!
The hymnography of Theophany is thought-provoking, as are all the hymns of the Church; several hymns make mention of the absurdity of John the Baptist, a mere creature, baptizing the Creator of the Universe in a baptism of repentance. How can the lamp baptize the Light? John asks. More to the point, why would the One Who dwells in unapproachable Light and is immaculately pure need to submit Himself to a rite designed for purification and repentance? Even more to the point, why would He demand that those who would follow Him undergo a similar rite? We know that those who are baptized into Christ are baptized into His death (Rom. 6.3); such a rite is no mere "expression" but a participation in the very death of Christ. So why would Christ undergo a rite--and one that actually was a mere expression of repentance--when He Himself was to suffer the very death and burial in which we would participate? Is His baptism meant to be a focal point for our baptism?
Father Stephen Freeman points out that no where in the Law is Christ's baptism demanded, yet the reason in the text of Matthew is that such a baptism is necessary to "fulfill all righteousness." Having passed through the whole of the Law's demands, he thus submits Himself to the one who is the greatest of the prophets and bears witness to the fact that this one--the one commemorated in the Church the day after Theophany--is the harbinger of a new existence, which is inaugurated by the baptized One.
Such an existence, however, is not effected by His baptism, nor even by His Incarnation. As Fr. Stephen points out, the character of Christ's baptism is very much like the character of His resurrection, and this is important to the matter at hand. St. Paul mentions that, when Christ was raised from the dead after emptying Himself on the Cross, He was given the name above every name and revealed as Lord. St. Cyril of Alexandria makes much of the fact that the very reason why Christ is called ο Χριστος, "The Anointed One," is because He has been anointed by the Father by the Holy Spirit, both in the rivers of the Jordan and in the Resurrection from the dead (Acts. 10.38, 40, 42). What makes our contemplation of Christ in the Jordan so, well, epiphanic is that this One on Whom the Spirit descended and remained is the One Who has ever been thus anointed since before the foundation of the world, for He has been slain since before any of what we see existed (Rev. 13.8). This is definitely something that clashes on our postmodern ears, which are used to linear, cause-and-effect arguments. But the manifestation of the Ever-Crucified One in the rivers of the Jordan means quite a bit to us, if we let it.
Firstly, it means that we are never without One who suffers. Christ our God, paradoxically, is One Who suffers from all eternity--not in the mere manner of "painful" which we are accustomed to hearing, but in the way of changing through participation in another. During one of the house blessings which we had on campus following the liturgy on the Feast (Orthodox Christians customarily have their houses blessed with holy water in the weeks following Theophany), I spoke with a young man contemplating seminary, and we spoke at length about theodicy, the idea that an omnipotent and good God allows suffering. The idea that God is not only no stranger to suffering but also eternally familiar with it is something that can be of immense comfort for us.
This comfort, however, should not be a mere justification of our anger towards God at a fallen world, a mere bit of psychological transference or Schadenfreude at the Creator's getting "a bit of His own medicine." If anything, it is an invitation to suffering that man can, finally, accept, for we are called to drown with Him and understand through this witness of martyrdom (the very word μαρτυς, from whence we get martyr, means witness) that the One who bids us suffer will raise us with Him.