“Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness”
On the occasion of the feasts of the Nativity and
Epiphany, we like to present here one of the articles by
Father Matta on these events. It is a sermon delivered in
the church of Abba Skheiron, in the Monastery of St
Macarius, on January 1976.
Father Matta El-Meskeen (Matthew the Poor)
wE SHALL FOLLOW ON from what we said on the Feast of the Nativity
concerning our great need always to progress from faith expressed in words to faith
expressed in experience. Remember how that evening we were able to see in the stature
of the Christ child a new opportunity, even a new power, from which we might seek to
acquire renewal, or rather healing for the pride of our spirit, which has grown withered
with age, and whose wounds are festering. Remember how there opened before us on
the Feast of the Nativity a door leading to a new life of fellowship with Christ in His
infancy, to prepare us to enter into the Kingdom according to the condition laid down by
the Lord: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the
kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3).
Today, beloved, as we celebrate the baptism of the Lord in the Jordan, we see before
us the fulfillment of the same experience that we entered into at the Nativity. Now
Christ, as a young man of thirty, steps forward, with a childlike spirit that is quite
amazing, to be baptized by a man at the hand of John.
As a child, Christ had offered to mankind an opening, or rather an effective source,
from which man could draw power and inspiration to solve his major problem: “Which
is the greater?” It is a problem from which no one can escape; even the disciples
themselves fell prey to it, and St Luke records for us the regrettable scene. “A dispute
also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” And He said
to them, “Rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as
one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it
not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Lk 22:24-27).
Now, in His baptism, Christ offers us, as He bows His head under the hand of John, a
solution to a deeper and more serious problem: “Which is the most righteous?” I call
this a deeper and more serious problem, because “Which is the greatest?” is a problem
related to the outward appearance. It may happen that a man may avoid it by preferring
his brother to himself before other people, so that he should appear more humble or
more righteous. But the great disaster and danger lies in the problem “Which is the most
righteous?” Man, in his heart, always praises himself, and it is hard for man to praise the
righteousness of another. But in the baptism of Christ we see this rule strikingly
reversed. Christ, the most righteous, presents Himself to John, who is totally lacking in
righteousness (that is divinity), and bowing His head in humility urges John to consent
to baptize Him.
Pay attention here, beloved, for when Christ says, “Let it be so now; for thus it is
fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness,” He is not receiving righteousness from John,
but “fulfilling” all righteousness for John and the whole human race. Christ here,
although He appears to be receiving for Himself the anointing of baptism for
righteousness, is in fact, by His baptism, bringing about all righteousness, not for
Himself, but for any other man who follows His example. Christ here, through His
baptism, adds righteousness to the account of mankind, the righteousness of the
submission of the greater to the less. Christ here introduces to the human race a
possibility that did not exist before, the possibility of the submission of the righteous to
one who is less righteous than he. Through this submission a new righteousness was
born, introduced by Christ to the world of human pride; and Christ counted it as “all
Today Christ offers us the greatest treatment for the greatest malady. By bowing His
head under the hand of John, receiving from him the unction of baptism, He delivers to
us the spirit of humility, or, as we may say more powerfully, the mystery of humility,
which contains “the fulfillment of all righteousness.”
In the eyes of God, the people of Israel were basically characterized as a “thicknecked”
and “stiff-necked” people. Stiff-necked towards whom? Towards God Himself.
The people of Israel never bowed their heads under the hand of God, and they were not
the last of the peoples of the earth to behave so. Christ came to heal the stiffness of the
necks of the people of Israel and all mankind.
He bows His head simply, submissively and quite willingly under the hand of John
and delivers to us a divine balm with which to anoint our necks, so that we shall be
healed of the pain of pride and receive the mystery of “all righteousness.” This is the
secret balm, the divine and mysterious ointment, which, if we use it, restores to our
necks the suppleness of childhood, so that we always bow our heads in simplicity,
seeking after all righteousness.
We notice, beloved, that Christ presented Himself to John as one needing to be
baptized. This is clear when John says to Him, “I need to be baptized by You, and do
You come to me?” That is, “You are coming to me life one in need.” In fact Christ had
no need to be baptized, nor any need for anything, nor for any righteousness, but when
He presented Himself for baptism as one in need, bowing His head in obedient
submission, He reveals to us one of the mysteries of the fulfillment of righteousness.
This is that when a man sets out to perform an act of humility and submission, he must
do so as one who is truly in need, and not in condescension! Christ reveals and carries
out not what is fitting for Him, but what is fitting for us and for our salvation and the
fulfillment of righteousness in our lives.
But I still feel, beloved, that I have not conveyed the full meaning of Christ’s bowing
His head to John.
This action of Christ’s by the Jordan stirs our consciences deeply. I might almost say
that by it Christ has this evening exposed our pride and revealed how far we are from
understanding and practising “true righteousness.” How hard it is for a lay-worker or
priest to bow his head to receive a blessing from the hand of one his equal! But what
Christ did went beyond all sense and logic. There was no fault in Him that He should
bow His divine head under a human hand to be anointed.
By this submission, which supersedes all the logic of priesthood, Christ established a
righteousness that excels every other righteousness in greatness, action and warmth. He
saw fit to record here in the Jordan, at the beginning of His public ministry, the firm
foundation on which a successful ministry must be based: “the bowed head.” This is
borne out and confirmed by the parallel we find in what Christ did with the same power
the night He instituted the mystery of the Lord’s Supper, when He stooped down
completely and sat upon the ground to wash the disciples’ feet. It is as if bowing the
head in contrite submission is the formal beginning for every divine mystery, whether
baptism or Eucharist.
The true significance of this point appears when we remember what Christ said to
Peter when he tried to excuse himself from having his feet washed, thinking it was too
much that he should stand like a master with Christ before him like a slave and servant.
The Lord rebuked him; “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me” (Jn 13:8). The
same thing happened at His baptism, when John tried to excuse himself from the task of
laying hands on Christ’s head and baptizing Him in the water. The Lord cut him short
with, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15).
Christ’s firm intention here to insist on the absolute necessity of His taking up a position
before both John and Peter of one less than they, reveals to us the importance and
seriousness of the practice of the mystery of humility and submission in serving the
Church, in the priesthood and in the Christian life in general. It is the basic way of
entering into righteousness. “For I have given you an example, that you also should do
as I have done to you. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (Jn
The truth that we monks must never forget, is that Christ here abruptly reverses the
normal order of things in order that we should be vigilant.
Christ here rejects the human concept of justice and turns it upside down. He rejects
every logic of self-defense and pours scorn on it, for after He has bowed His head
beneath the hand of John we can no longer ask with dignity “Who is the greatest?” Our
dignity lies in our deliberate and insistent relinquishment of every dignity and in
surrendering it to those who are less than we. We can no longer uphold claims to
leadership or priority or privilege, for the extent to which we humble ourselves before
the community is what establishes our righteousness and our true leadership, and our
actions are to be commended in proportion to our renunciation of our worthiness.
John the Baptist’s readiness to baptize Christ was also an act of obedience and
submission, which may be compared with the humble and modest response of the
Virgin Mary, when God chose her to bear Christ. The obedience and submission of John
the Baptist to the Lord’s command to baptize Him prepared the way for Christ to enact,
within the rite of the mystery of baptism, the amazing mystery of humility, which He
called the mystery of the fulfillment of righteousness. He in the Jordan, as later when He
washed the disciples’ feet, the Lord demonstrates His submission, like a slave, under the
hand of John to abolish the shame of man, who refused to submit under the hand of
Once again we stop to contemplate how heaven was moved by the humble acts of the
Lord Jesus. When Christ was born and laid in a manger in a stable, the heavens opened,
and the angel and the hosts of heaven appeared to announce the good news of a great
salvation, and to glorify God. Here at the Jordan the same thing happens. The heavens
open, the Holy Spirit appears visibly, and the voice of the Father Himself announces the
identity of this Man bowing His head before John. “This is my beloved Son, with whom
I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). So it is that, in so far as man on earth humbles himself,
God reveals Himself and with the angels of heaven gives man glory.
We notice too that the Holy Spirit alights on Christ as He bows Himself down, taking
the form of a dove. He does not appear as a tongue of flame as on the day of Pentecost,
nor as a heavy hand upon the head as happened to the Old Testament prophets, for the
Holy Spirit chooses the form in which He appears, according to the condition of the one
He comes upon. So the Spirit chose the form of the gentle dove to reveal the nature of
the heart of Jesus and His great meekness, love and humility.
How much we need today the meekness of this heart of Jesus, as He stands bowing
down before John in simple humility and submission, so that the Holy Spirit may come
upon us in the form of a dove, to bring us closer to the Jesus of the Jordan and unite our
hearts together with that gentle, humble heart!
At the Nativity we took the meekness of infancy as a standard by which to live at all
times to be prepared to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. At the Jordan we take the bowed
head of Christ as a standard by which we may be prepared to live in humble fellowship
with the Holy Spirit, and as a vocation to live out in the world.
For just as Christ urged us to go back and remain always as children so that we may
enter the Kingdom of Heaven, He urges us too to be meek as doves. This is the
anointing we need for service and to live in the world. Christ is always ready to give us
the spirit of infant humility according to His stature in Bethlehem, and the spirit of the
humility of the dove according to His stature in the Jordan, so that we may be prepared
outwardly and inwardly to attain the full stature of Christ.
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