For us, Western Christians, Christmas is already over and done with; the tree is out on the curb, and the ornaments safely stashed away. But for the Eastern Orthodox Christians, Christmastide is still in full swing, and the emphasis of their concluding celebration will be on the remembrance of the Baptism of Jesus, in some places called Theophany (i.e., “manifestation of God”), as opposed to epiphany (i.e., “manifestation from above”).
I love that in the Anglican tradition, we get to make all three observances, and give equal consideration to the muddy waters of the river Jordan, as we do to the more attractive gifts of the Oriental kings. For in actual fact, the three great Christian feasts historically began as one celebration, and they all celebrate the same core theme: the journey of self-giving.
Recall the “Journey of the Magi” by TS Eliot that we read last week; a wonderful exegesis of the familiar story, yet in fact, based on a sermon delivered a few centuries prior! For in his Nativity sermon of 1620, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes already reflected on how utterly compelling this journey was, in spite of all its dangers, discomfort, and horrible timing (“the worst time of the year”!). Such is, of course, the nature of our inner journey of self-actualization, on which everyone who searches for the truth sets out in spite of his or herself. Is there ever a good time for this journey?
Is there ever a good time for what looks like the very death of self -- indeed, an epitome of sacrifice? Even the splendid gifts that Jesus receives at his birth begin to look more like the ominous gifts of the evil fairy-godmother, when we stop to consider that the three wise men brought the same kinds of presents to Jesus’ crib as the three loyal women would later bring to his grave. And yet, a willing sacrifice of self is what’s required to receive the gift of rebirth.
So, the baptism of Christ, and of every Christian thereafter, is too, a metaphor for the paschal journey -- a movement from birth to death to rebirth. What is it that compelled you to set out on this journey?
I have another poem for us today, which describes what drove Jesus to come into our struggling world. It’s called the "The Coming", by RS Thomas, a rather eccentric Welsh Anglican priest of the last century. Jesus looks at our world “as through water” (a baptismal reference, of course). “As through water”, he sees the scorched land, a land of shadows, frankly quite slimy in parts. A small globe we live on, isn’t it? All we can do is raise our “thin arms” in futile pleas, to the sad sky. Yes, God sees it all; and says, “let me go there”. And it was the same world that Jesus saw through the murky waters of the River Jordan, as he lowered himself into the depth and chaos of their grave.
Did he really need the explicit endorsement of the Holy Spirit, as he thereby embarked on the journey towards his passion? We do. We are the ones who need to hear God say that he is “well-pleased” with our choice. That is the magic of epiphany - the sudden clarity of heart and mind when we know we can honestly say, like Mary, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord”.
The servant. Absolutely, both in Isaiah’s prophetic description of Jesus as the servant of God, and in the gospels foreshadowed by his writings, we do find an epitome of compassion and self-giving love. Jesus is a servant, but let’s get one thing straight: he did not come to earth to serve us, but to serve God. We forget this when we pray, when we expect our lives to unfold a certain way, when bad things happen to good people. If we are also to truly follow Jesus, we are to serve God - not people. And that requires much discernment and at times, a departure from our human, limited, and selfish, understanding of fairness. So sometimes, serving God means making tough choices: we are not to continue in abusive relationships out of a misguided sense of duty; nor are we to pander to our children or bosses; or cover up for others’ mistakes. For in doing so, we do a disservice to God, by preventing both ourselves and others from achieving God’s greater purpose for us all.
Conversely, whenever we expect the acts of self-giving from other people, we should also know that their primary purpose would not be to satisfy our little whims, but to foster God’s harmony in the world and in relationships. To illustrate, when a child says, “Why does my brother always get to have his way?”, it is hard for her to understand that we encourage ALL of our children to be generous to each other - and not so that others “get what they want”, but to preserve the harmony of our little family.
By definition, self-sacrifice is never convenient, and the sacrifices of others are never as obvious to us as those of ourselves… there’s probably never “a good time of the year” for this journey! And yet, Jesus, as described by Isaiah, doesn’t raise his voice, or cry out in the street as if to command people. His way is quiet and humble. When He comes across God’s people who are broken He doesn’t say, “Why have you acted this way? Why have you done these sinful things that caused you to be broken? What were you thinking?”
We do speak that way to our children and partners, often creating irreparable damage despite our best intentions. God, on the other hand, will not break an already “bruised reed”. The divine Redeemer takes broken people with barely any image of God left, and heals them - saying simply, “let me go there”. He invites us to accompany him on this journey. But let us not go with him empty-handed. Let us bring the gifts of our hearts and minds; and our free-will to serve him -- and, with him.