Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Today, the Anglican church celebrates a feast called “the Baptism of the Lord,” in the Orthodox world also known as “theophany” (meaning God’s self revelation). In the Eastern church calendar, Theophany completes the 12 days of Christmastide, in the same way as Epiphany (the visit of the Magi) does in the West. The Anglican church embraces it all, adding Theophany on the first Sunday after Epiphany, which is understandable, given that historically, Christmas, Epiphany, and Theophany began as one celebration, and only later diverged. After all, each describes a facet of the shared, universal truth of God’s self-revelation to the world. Nonetheless, today, let’s keep it “simple” and focus on the Baptism of the Lord.
As modern day Christians, we tend to think that a baptism is a quintessential Christian rite. But, long before Christianity, it was a custom already established in Judaism, which never understood it to remove sin, but rather to purify one sufficiently to approach the door of the Temple, where a sin offering would ultimately be performed. It is in the spirit of this ritual purification that an eccentric man called John, a relative of Jesus, suddenly emerged from the desert where he’d dwelt for decades and began immersing people in the river Jordan. Disconcerting yet irresistibly charismatic, he somehow had such an appeal to the good faithful Jewish people, that many decided to affirm their faith by doing so. Yet, John was adamant to assert that there will be more after this; that “one will come after me to baptise you by the ultimate means – by the Holy Spirit”. I’m not sure that he expected this, but then the One of whom he had spoken suddenly showed up, and chose to join the people in the river. Why was this symbolic action important enough that every gospel aside from John records this story? As it is the case with most matters of our faith, there is probably more than one answer to this question.
For example, might it echo our OT reading, in which we hear Isaiah say on behalf of God to his nation: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you”? If Christmas points us to the mystery of the birth of God in the body of every human, then the Baptism of the Lord reminds us of a similar truth – that God chooses to plunge right into the sometimes-muddy waters of the human condition, cleansing and renewing our minds and hearts through his eternal presence. As such, secretly, Christ sanctified the body of his mother, the first human to be sanctified, and then publicly, he opened the way for us to be made holy and reject evil. So, the purification of the whole universe began with the sanctification of water – the element on which all life depends, of which our bodies make up 60% of our tissues and 90% of the blood, and in which our babies float for 9 months before birth. It was blessed for the first time when “God spoke over the water” (Ps 29), but remained a gateway to freedom all through the human history; such as when through the parted Red Sea, God led his people out of Egypt, and through the parted Jordan, they walked into the Promised Land – apparently, in the exact same spot where Christ was baptised!
For this reason, in the Orthodox world, the Baptism of the Lord is almost as important as Christmas. On Jan the 19th, the priests bless the water brought into the church, as well as all water found in nature. In Greece, an offering of wine is made into the waves of the sea, perhaps, adding a new layer of meaning to a custom that predates Christianity. In Russia, the faithful, more shockingly, immerse themselves into the natural bodies of water nearest to the church, striving after a wooden cross that’s thrown into it. Those less exuberant settle simply for filling their jars with the blessed water and keeping it over the year, or even filling it with tap water at home because all the world's water is considered to be made holy on this day. That’s what happens on this major feast day, but more importantly, every time any priest in any church blesses the water that fills the font, he or she does so in recognition that in Christ’s baptism, God has already sanctified all the waters that would ever be used in all our baptisms.
In addition, the name of the feast, Theophany, speaks to a moment of revelation. God’s revelation to John who baptised Jesus, to all others who contemplated this mystery afterwards, but also, perhaps, to Jesus himself. All human and Christ’s baptisms speak to an increased awareness of who we are, in God, and also, how is it that, in fact, that we ARE God. Our earliest predecessors in faith thought that Jesus was made God at his resurrection, but quite soon after, they came to think that, instead, he had been adopted as the divine Son of God at his baptism, as revealed by the fact that the earliest Gospel to be written (Mark) begins with Jesus’ baptism, not birth, and that it is only after his baptism that he performs miracles and delivers remarkable teachings. Eventually, of course, Christians moved beyond the idea that Jesus had become the Son of God at some point to the notion that he had always been so, before coming into the world. Nonetheless, baptism tells us of a moment on route to becoming more like God, when a new level of awareness of God begins to enable miracles and teachings.
The very real miracle that flows out of our own baptisms is that we become inspired and empowered to do for each other something of what Christ has done for us. That is, to accept our own misdoings and those of others, to confess them and to forgive, and to be truly present with each other and foster each other’s faith and gifts. Of course, receiving a confession can be as awkward as making it, and to forgive is hard. But in the same way that Christ became divine even as he soiled himself in the waters where others have repented, we will be made a little bit more like God each time we do so. Baptism certainly did not change Jesus’ nature, but it opened his eyes, as well as the eyes of others, to the fullness of it. And so it is with us: our baptism does not change us on the spot, but it reveals to us what we are meant to be, and manifests to us how far we have already come along on that path. Thanks be to God.