A Gift, Not a Guilt Trip

Jesus’ Baptism According to St. Cyril

We aren’t sure what to do with the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord. This feast always falls on the first Sunday after Epiphany, which itself comes shortly after Christmas, but compared to these two feasts, the Baptism of the Lord receives short shrift. It’s a day we mark liturgically, but not one we actually celebrate.

However, when the solemnity comes each year, I’m reminded of the interpretation of Christ’s baptism written by St. Cyril of Alexandria (378–444 AD), the somewhat notorious figure who clashed with Nestorius over the nature of Christ. It may come as a surprise that Cyril has something worthwhile to say about Christ’s baptism. Compared to many other patristic writers, Cyril is not exactly en vogue in the English-speaking world—and hasn’t been since the nineteenth century, when Charles Kingsley's historical novel Hypatia laid the heinous death of the famous female philosopher for which it is named at Cyril’s feet. But while it is ridiculous to place the blame for Hypatia’s death on Cyril, it’s also true that his interactions with the “pagan” population of Alexandria were not congenial—and his treatment of the city’s Jewish population was even worse.

Cyril describes the fall not as a descent into depravity and sinfulness, but as a loss of the Holy Spirit.

Despite his very real faults, Cyril was also a remarkable theologian, and his interpretation of the baptism of Jesus is particularly worth reading. While it lacks the historical-critical rigor expected by contemporary biblical scholars, it possesses a poetic theological beauty that can serve to remind us of the profundity of our own baptisms. 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 within the overall narrative of human salvation—our creation, fall, and redemption—as does Cyril. And it is this that makes Cyril’s account so appealing.

The problem of Jesus’ baptism for Cyril was this: If Jesus needed to receive the Holy Spirit at baptism, doesn’t that mean that Jesus was less than divine? Cyril addresses this by suggesting that we need to understand Jesus’ reception of the Spirit as having profound implications for our own 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.

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 human 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 and preserves the Holy Spirit so that all humankind might once again experience transforming intimacy with God through partaking of the divine nature. Christ’s reception of the Holy Spirit as the Second Adam was of such importance, Cyril argues, that this event 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.

Too often when I ask my Catholic students about the purpose of baptism, they talk about it in relation to original sin, as if baptism was only about wiping away its effects. For Cyril, baptism is primarily about the gift of God’s self to us in the person of the Holy Spirit and the retrieval of an original intimacy with the divine. Baptized in the name of the Trinity that is and exists as love, we receive God’s very own Spirit just as Christ received the Spirit. Through the gift of God’s self in baptism, we are drawn into communion and intimacy with God, made one with God in a way that cannot help but transform us to love more fully, to give of ourselves to God and to others.

We become what we were created to be.

Gregory K. Hillis is associate professor of theology at Bellarmine University. He wrote the introduction for a new translation of Cyril of Alexandria’s Glaphyra on the Pentateuch, out later this month from Catholic University of America Press.

Also by this author
A Burial at Gethsemani

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