Father Nicholas Lang
The First Sunday after the Epiphany: the Baptism of Our Lord
Just a week after we heard the story of the magi traveling afar to find and visit the infant Christ child, we meet the all-grown-up Jesus ready to take on a new direction in an act of adult choice. By his baptism, Jesus announces his presence, affirms his belief, and prepares to begin his life’s work, one that would be a radical departure from the old-time religion of the people of Israel.
Today we are at the River Jordan. The baptism that John was offering was not some innovation by a creative fanatic. It had its precedence in the practice of Jewish baptism that was known in John’s day. To receive converts to the faith, Jewish leaders would sometimes guide converts into a river as a symbolic cleansing of their souls. The baptizer would stand beside the person in the water and recite appropriate words from Hebrew Scripture. Like circumcision, this was a sign of a person’s belief and of their reception into the faith.
The baptism of John, however, was different. He was not baptizing converts to the Jewish faith; he was baptizing members of the Jewish community to a new way of life. Specifically, he was bathing those who were persuaded by his powerful preaching about repentance. His baptism was not a conversion, but a reversion; it was a sign of turning around, of redirecting one’s life toward God.
For Jesus to come seeking baptism must have seemed like a surprise to John. He knew he was not worthy to stoop before Jesus, yet Jesus came to John for the same ministrations that were given to others. Afterwards, the very heavens indicated that John had it right. This was God’s Son.
There is one question that might well be on our mind: Why would Jesus, the Son of God, come to be baptized? Most assuredly to identify with us and our spiritual needs and to model for us what happens when we follow his lead and are baptized by water and the Spirit. But perhaps we might get a better grip on the significance of this event if we think about the word epiphany which is not just related to the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child but to this entire season that comes immediately after Christmas. How have we come to use that word in our comings and goings? When we’ve had one of those “aha” moments, we say that we’d had an “epiphany.” We’ve seen things in a new perspective. We’d gleaned a new meaning about something. We’ve understood an old reality in a completely new light.
The Baptism of Jesus was an “aha” moment—an epiphany for all who were present, as well as for those who were not. God: Creator, Redeemer, and the Sustainer of life, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were made manifest. The source of salvation and eternal life was identified. The Voice spoke that intimate term of endearment Beloved and that is exactly how God names each one of us. For many people, that’s probably a hard pill to swallow. We feel undeserving of that designation. Accepting the fact that God loves us so enormously, without condition and with no strings attached, can be mind boggling to us flawed humans.
Now here are a few brief perspectives on Baptism. First, a suggestion from liturgist J. Frank Henderson who tells us that “Baptism is entering into a community that is wisdom’s own household. Here we all are teachers and all are learners. Here members are bound to each other by ties of affection and fidelity.”
When we come together to baptize or to renew our own baptismal covenant it is really about togetherness. About which Archbishop Desmond Tutu says: “If we could but recognize our common humanity, that we do belong together, that our destinies are bound up in one another’s, that we can be free only together, that we can survive only together, that we can be human only together, then a glorious world would come into being.”
In his book, A Season for the Spirit, Martin Smith writes of a new perspective on the Baptism of Jesus. He describes the fleeting film images that struck him when he saw the Pasolini film The Gospel According to Matthew. It shattered any idea Smith had of Jesus standing alone before God. Instead, Jesus is surrounded by masses of people who are in the water, being baptized with John along with Jesus.
Smith writes, “It is one and the same movement of surrender to open ourselves to intimacy and personal unions with God…and to open ourselves to compassion and solidarity with our struggling, needy human fellow beings; to be open to the embrace of God is necessarily and inevitably to be open to the whole creation which is held in that embrace.”
As Mother Barbara Brown Taylor, one of my favorite preachers writes, “Whether we were carried in our mother’s arms or arrived under our own steam, we got into the river of life with Jesus and all his flawed kin. There is not a chance we will be mistaken for one of them. Because we are them, thanks be to God, as they are us: Christ’s own forever.”
Like the first disciples of Jesus, we are sent out into the world, strengthened by Word and Sacrament and by one another, to proclaim the good news that God has come among us in the flesh; that God has called us God’s “beloved.” We have taken the risk to step into the river with Jesus. We are Christ’s own forever; bound to each other by ties of affection and fidelity. Good news as we begin a New Year.