Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)

Today’s passage is an example of testimony.

December 25, 2008

Second Reading
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Commentary on Titus 3:4-7

Today’s passage is an example of testimony.

Beginning with the verse immediately preceding our text (3:3), this lectionary text speaks of the state of the reader, with respect to salvation, before and after becoming a Christian. However this is not what makes it a testimony. It is a testimony because the author includes himself in this discussion. When compared with similar passages (e.g., Romans 6:17-23; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Colossians 3:7-8), a similar train of thought is readily apparent. This presentation of one’s past before becoming a Christian (e.g., statements like “we were” or “you were”), followed by a description of his or her conditions as a Christian (e.g., “he saved us”), was a common topic of early Christian preaching. The turning point was described in one of two ways, either from the standpoint of evangelization or from the history of salvation. If from evangelization, the conversion was stressed. If from the history of salvation, the appearance of Christ was the central focus. This passage is an example of the latter.

Titus 3:8, “the saying is sure,” underscores this section as derived from prior Christian tradition. The manner in which 3:3-7 is introduced indicates quite clearly that the author is not saying something new, but is passing on what he had received. This explains why the author makes no attempt to integrate or make consistent his use of terms. For example, “grace” in 2:11 means a divine power, whereas in 3:7 it means an act of God through Jesus Christ. Likewise, “bringing salvation” in 2:11 refers to the power of grace. “He saved” in 3:5 refers to salvation through baptism. It is most likely because these expressions are so common to the Christian lexicon that we do not easily recognize their variations.

Christmas is a time for testimony firmly rooted in the Christian tradition. When we celebrate the Nativity, we remember what the birth of Jesus meant for the world (on a cosmic scale) and means for us individually and collectively. Out of this comes our testimony. “But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared,” proclaims the author, “he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (3:4-5). This testimony, now a part of our Christian heritage, becomes our testimony as we appropriate the significance of God’s appearance in the birth of Jesus.

The power of traditions is that they are not static. Each experience is both familiar and new. Traditions provide us with an opportunity to further define (or even redefine!) who we are. Imagine what our lives would be like if Thanksgiving was a never-ending repetition, an authentic expression of the movie Groundhog Day or the musical Brigadoon. The same food. The same conversations. The same people at the very same points in their lives. It would be boredom at the very least and tragic despair when fully realized. Life without a future is no real life at all. The power of our tradition is that the new builds upon and enhances the past experience. This is an idea the author points to when he speaks of “rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (3:5).

The language of rebirth found in 3:5 is similar to that of Romans 6:4 and John 3:3. It is an understanding related to the image of baptism as death or burial. In fact, the expression “water of rebirth” (literally “bath of rebirth”) was a very common reference to baptism at the time of the writing of Titus. And, although ritual bathing was not unknown to Judaism, there is no real analogy with its usage here. Ancient bathing practices frequently involved effusion (i.e., pouring water) or effusion with partial immersion. This has led some to argue that the mode of early Christian baptism had to be effusion (e.g., “this Spirit he poured out on us richly”). Although persuasive, this is not the only possibility. The truth is that “baptism” and its verb baptizō are technical terms, meaning they are used in a specific sense or manner that does not necessarily correspond to their literal definitions. In fact, the word “baptism” is only found in Christian writings from the ancient world. Baptizō means “to dip” or “immerse.” Many believe this is what happened when people were baptized. Yet, no New Testament writer ever describes in detail−or gives us the mechanics−of how baptism was performed. For example, Romans 6:3-6 invokes the image of dying and rising. But in discussions of this, we often overlook a couple key elements.

First, Paul is writing to Christians, persons who have already been baptized, about how they should have understood their baptisms. This description tells us very little, if anything, about how they were baptized or what they thought it meant. If they did not already think the way he did, Paul wants to persuade them that baptism is best understood in this manner.

Second, baptism is described in Romans as a metaphorical reenactment of the crucifixion and resurrection. If we as readers understand that he does not mean that individuals are literally crucified and resurrected, then must it follow that the metaphorical act of dying and rising needs to be performed literally?

In this passage from Titus, the author uses the image of bathing and the language of pouring to describe baptism, a metaphor somewhat different from the one we encounter in Romans 6. In other words, New Testament writers give us metaphors about baptism, but they do not appear interested in describing the mechanics of it. Consequently, we must be careful not to push the language too far.

Nevertheless, baptism is a tradition that functions as a vehicle for our testimony. Our repeated experience of it−through witness or remembrance−defines and redefines who we are. Like a good Christmas celebration, our participation in the tradition becomes our ongoing testimony as we remember who we were in light of who we are now.