[Jesus said]: “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of
Descending and ascending. Dying and rising to life again. These pairs of actions are essential to the understanding of Holy Baptism. They are the actions that Jesus did to bring salvation to this sinful world. In His discourse with Nicodemus, Jesus is clear that His presence in this world was a matter of descent. That is the heart of the incarnation: the Lord God leaves His dwelling place in heaven to make a dwelling place on earth. This is what happened in the conception, birth, and life of Christ.
As the Church approaches Holy Week, the focus on the purpose of that descent increases. Why does the Son of Man descend from heaven? Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus answers that question: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” The goal of the incarnation of Christ was His crucifixion. That is what the conception and birth of Christ was meant to lead to. This is how He fulfills the message revealed by the angel: “He will save His people from their sins.”
So the Son of Man descends from heaven. Then the Son of Man is lifted up in His crucifixion. He dies and is buried. But the third day He rose again from the dead. For the One who was suspended from the cross and dropped into a tomb stands up again. He rises. But not only does He arise from the grave, He ascends into heaven. Jesus’ words stand true: “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of
But what Jesus accomplishes in His descent and ascent, in His dying and living again is not limited to Him. He is the first to do it, but He will not be the last. For what does Jesus discuss with Nicodemus? Not that He alone does so. No, Jesus speaks about entry into the kingdom of heaven for more than Himself: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again [born from above] he cannot see the kingdom of heaven. . . . Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the
So how is one “born of water and the Spirit”? How is one “born again [born from above]”? It is through the reception of Holy Baptism: “the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” This is how it happens. Something great is accomplished through the descent of the Holy Spirit upon you. You who were born of the flesh are reborn. There is an ascending, as you are lifted from simply existing in a limited, corrupt, and temporal way. Jesus speaks so: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” A greater existence is given to you, an existence that endures in life forever. For you are raised from sinfulness to righteousness, from the secular to the sacred.
But your participation in Holy Baptism also necessitated your own descent. For you to rise, you had to die. You had to die to live. You had to die in Christ. This is the way that the Scriptures speak about Holy Baptism. They are words very familiar: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Holy Baptism involves participation in the descent and ascent of Christ.
You heard from the account of Jonah the prophet this evening, as his song from the belly of the fish was read. The prophet underwent a descent and ascent. Listen again to some of his words: “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and He answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and You heard my voice. For You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all Your waves and Your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from Your sight; yet I shall again look upon Your holy temple.’ The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet You brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.” That is quite the descent: to the belly of Sheol, to the bottom of the deep, to the roots of the mountains. And yet, the prophet says: “You brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.”
Jonah’s song speaks about himself, but it also speaks about the Christ. For what Jonah does, Jesus does also. It is the promise He makes: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Jonah’s song becomes Jesus’ song. The Son of Man descends to earth, then He is lifted up on the cross. The Son of Man descends to hell, then He rises to life again. Descending and ascending, dying and rising: it is the path that Jesus takes to bring you salvation.
But the path that Jesus travels He does not travel alone. No, you go that way, too. For what Jesus underwent is what you also experience. That is what it means for you to be joined with Him in Holy Baptism. You participate in His death and resurrection. The Spirit descends, the power of the Most High overshadows you, so that you are born from above. You are lifted up with Jesus on the cross. You descend with Him to the grave. But you also ascend with Him to life everlasting.
So you make your way to death and the grave. You are buried, but not alone; you are buried with Christ. United with Him, you make the lyrics of Jesus’ and Jonah’s song your own: “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and He answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and You heard my voice. . . . I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet You brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.” This is your song, for you have been born from above. You have died with Christ and have descended with Him. But you also have risen with Christ and have ascended with Him. Born of water and the Spirit, you shall enter the Kingdom of heaven. believing in the Son of Man, you have life everlasting.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.