2024-01-07 (Baptism of Christ)
(Gen. 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11)
This weekend must be confusing for any visitors from the East, by which I don’t mean any from as far east as where the Wise Men were from, but for those visitors from the Eastern Church, this weekend in the Western Church’s calendar must seem very odd indeed. This is of course because in the Eastern Church, Epiphany is taken solely to commemorate our Lord’s baptism, which we are now remembering this year on the day after. This arises because in the West from early times, Epiphany has become a kind of catch-all feast. While it is now mainly used to commemorate the visit of the Wise Men to Bethlehem, in the West it has also been associated not only with the Baptism of our Lord, but also with the events at the wedding at Cana. I am not sure whether things are helped or hindered by the way the Anglican Church now moves the commemoration of the Baptism to the nearest Sunday after Epiphany.
In a way, I suppose this does make sense because all these events can be interpreted as epiphanies, as events that reveal who the man Jesus, born at Bethlehem, really is. This entire season through from the Christ-Child being born in a stable through to his presentation in the Temple at Candlemas, and his recognition by Anna and Simeon as the Anointed One who they had been waiting for, are epiphanies. They are all things that fulfil what the Greek original of the word, epiphany, mean – they are a manifestation or a striking appearance. A manifestation of who Jesus really is, and because of who he is, they are also manifestations that should tell us something about God, about the divine.
Many dictionary definitions of epiphany reflecting its remaining use in popular parlance talk about it as referring to an experience of sudden and striking realisation. It tends to be a word used now to refer to those situations where we ponder a matter, mull it over in our minds, and then suddenly have a ‘Eureka’ moment. What we have been trying to understand suddenly becomes clear to us. Something that has troubled and confused us is now seen with striking clarity. Of course, Mark’s Gospel recounts the events of Jesus’ life with incredible sparseness. We have no account of the Nativity in his Gospel, and he does not tell us how the crowds at the Jordan reacted when the heavens were torn apart and the voice from Heaven said, ‘You are My Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’
We don’t know if these crowds even saw it, or if they had a ‘Eureka’ moment because of it. We don’t know if they reacted like the Wise Men or the shepherds in the other Gospels, or whether they reacted like Anna and Simeon in the Temple. Mark seems to be uninterested in this aspect of things, instead he seems to be bluntly addressing this to those who are hearing his Gospel read. It may be his concern was to challenge us to see this man, this man who was to eventually die upon the Cross, as being a manifestation of the Divine. That in these obscure events in an obscure part of the Roman Empire, we were actually having revealed to us something fundamental about the nature of God and about the nature of creation.
But what is there in Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry that may make us say ‘Eureka’, that may suddenly give us a new clarity about life. Mark’s account of Jesus’ first appearance is of course preceded by the appearance of John the Baptizer. In some mysterious way, what Jesus did was rooted in John’s baptism; it was rooted in that call for repentance, a repentance that would clear us of the burden of our sins. Perhaps among many things that Mark is trying to show us is the realisation that while the baptism that flowed from Jesus and his ministry is bound up with repentance and forgiveness of sins, it is something much more than that. As we heard today in the account of Paul’s time in Ephesus from the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul baptised them in the name of the Lord Jesus something else happened, something new came – ‘When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.’ This baptism in Jesus’ name was not only about forgiveness, it was about a new life, a new power that Jesus had brought into the world.
At Mattins, we heard the Old Testament lesson appointed for today’s Eucharist. We have probably heard that account of creation numerous times, so it can be easy to miss something odd in it. In the 1st chapter of Genesis, water seems to be spoken about as though it was already part of the formless void. In fact, all we know is that in that void there was water – and the wind, the spirit, of God moving over the face of the waters. It seems at some point the Hebrews regarded water as being such a fundamental part of existence that for them, it was around before God had even created the light to interact with the darkness, and so create night and day. This is perhaps not that surprising when we consider the environment in which the Hebrews lived, or why the symbol of baptism became so associated with repentance and cleansing from sin.
But as I said, Paul’s words and actions in the Acts of the Apostles make it clear that the baptism he proclaimed was not just about forgiveness of sins, no matter how important that was and is. The message Paul proclaims about Jesus, and which we are called to proclaim, is something more than that. In Mark’s Gospel, immediately after his baptism, Jesus is driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit, and perhaps that is something we need to ponder and mull over. Perhaps it is calling us to a ‘Eureka’ moment to realise that if Jesus was driven out after his baptism, then so should we be driven out by our baptism into the world to serve it, as he served it. That our baptism means that we need to show that we have the Spirit with us, and that we have a message and a new beginning to proclaim.
If it was the Spirit that could create Light in the formless void, then somehow in some small way, we are also called by our baptism to try to create Light in the darkness that is around us, no matter how impossible it may seem in the world in which we currently find ourselves. Or as today’s collect perhaps less pretentiosly puts it – if at the baptism of Jesus, the Father revealed him to be his Son, and anointed him with the Holy Spirit, then grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit, the faithfulness to fulfil our calling as your adopted children, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.