‘the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.’
Have you ever felt overwhelmed? I am sure you have.
The unimaginable scenes from Washington DC this week were of being overwhelmed.
[The surprised joy of those doing the overwhelming, the insurrectionists, … contrasted with the very real fears …]
Senators and staff suddenly, confusedly, found their sure place, the place they exercised their skills and found respect, overwhelmed,
suddenly turned to a place of chaos,
where nobody quite knew what to do and anything could happen,
a place suddenly of danger – and indeed 5 people tragically died.
We have all seen the photographs.
And this sudden upsurge of dangerous chaos in the place of deliberation and law-making echoes
experiences of chaos, of danger, of being overwhelmed around the world,
and not least the extended up-turning of life that is the pandemic.
It is the fear, the very real fear, that hospitals and hospital staff are being overwhelmed that has led to this current lockdown.
Being overwhelmed is not only an external event to be measured in statistics. It is also existential, a feeling of dread.
I have mentioned fear and anxieties;
and that experience of having more things to do than one can cope with, of expectations running too high.
Uncertainties about life’s choices, uncertainties about vocation, about how we should give our lives, these too can be overwhelming.
We can be overwhelmed by sadnesses, our own and others – and sometimes it seems recently we are about to be, as many friends relay their sorrows to us.
Our confidence in our agency is lost; everything appears nullified; we are lost in lethargy – a formless void and darkness which covers the face of the deep.
You get the picture, and maybe echo the experience.
And into these first verses of Mark, what he calls the beginning of the good news, Jesus comes to the banks of the Jordan, far from the familiarity of home.
The One who chooses to know our life chooses also baptism,
chooses to be held under the waters and by John – John is not a figure of the places of familiar comfort but of the wilderness and of challenge.
To be held under the waters is to be overwhelmed.
Jesus puts himself beyond self-help.
He puts himself into the hands of others,
gives himself to be bound into the covenantal tradition of the Jewish people.
He cannot be sure what it will mean to go under those waters,
or what it will mean to rise again baptised.
He allows himself the experience of being overwhelmed.
And, interestingly, this first gospel, in its few words, conveys Jesus’ own experience: ‘he saw the heavens opened’, writes Mark. The voice speaks to him: ‘You are my Son’.
This is not – not yet, we might say – the objective moment of Epiphany for the nation of Matthew and Luke, not yet the elemental transformation of which we sung in our antiphons: ‘in this water all creation is being made holy’.
At the beginning of Mark, in the presence of this somewhat terrifying figure of John the baptiser, it is Jesus’ own interpretation we are entered into, as if we were there with him, under the waters with him, overwhelmed with him – and the voice from heaven reverberates through us as through him.
In Mark’s scene this moment is an epiphany of Jesus to himself.
The very tearing apart of the heavens is his inner world: –
“You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And Jesus, who has submitted himself to being overwhelmed – to the overwhelming of belonging to Jewish prophetic tradition –
finds that he rises – not into the hands of men, but – out of the waters awake to God, to the fatherly love of God in all his experiencing, including in all his overwhelming: “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
That never ceases.
And hear how the Holy Spirit enters all today’s texts:
the breath over the dark waters;
Paul’s baptism into the Holy Spirit for the tiny congregation In Ephesus which would become such a seminal/key church of the early Christians;
and here in Mark the Spirit, not the powerful purifying fire but the gentle dove.
But isn’t the manifestation of Epiphany all about Jesus?
Epiphany is uncovering light out of overwhelming darkness,
uncovering form out of chaos, and God out of the life of a man.
And that is the inner work of the Spirit of God, his very breath in our lives.
We have been hearing a lot of the First Letter of John through these days.
And John just can’t stop saying over and over that God is love, that God has revealed his love among us, that God has sent his only Son, his beloved Son, into the world.
“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Are you overwhelmed?
Sometimes because you are loving others.
Are you overwhelmed and have lost confidence you’ll come up again?
Jesus has been through the waters of death for us.
He is God’s beloved Son.
And if ever we have become uncertain that God loves us,
or that we love,
or that we love ourselves or should do so,
we know the God is well pleased with his Son and that his Son has come for us.
This is our point of reference in all the disorientation of being overwhelmed:
the Christ, the one who is more powerful than we.
And being struck by this thought afresh – in the midst of our distress – that’s the work of the Spirit, the Comforter,
the Spirit who brings what is good from the waters of chaos
and life from the waters of baptism.
As the Psalmist says: “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters.”
Fr Oswin CR
The Feast of the Baptism 2021 – 10th January 2021