The Baptism of Christ

Sermon for The Baptism of Christ, Sunday, January 11 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Andrea Budgey, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Gen 1:1-5; Ps 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mk 1:4-11

As we mark, in the liturgical calendar, the Baptism of Our Lord, we enter a new phase in our celebration of Christ’s Incarnation. This hasn’t always been a separate feast in the Anglican Church—or the Roman Catholic Church—traditionally, the baptism of Jesus has been tucked into the events celebrated on Epiphany, along with the wedding at Cana. The Book of Common Prayer, for example, includes the option to observe the Baptism of Christ somewhere on or shortly after Epiphany, without giving it any particular prominence. But when the western churches decided, in the mid-20th century, to make more of this celebration, they were picking up a tradition which has always existed in the Eastern Orthodox churches, and acknowledging what an important moment this really is in the life and ministry of Jesus.

We talk about “Orthodox Christmas” happening on January 6th (or 7th), but what’s really being celebrated is the Feast of the Theophany, the revelation, or “showing forth” of God in the life of the incarnate Word at his baptism. Just as the Orthodox greeting at Easter is “Christ is risen”, so the greeting at Theophany is “Christ is baptised”, to which the response is “In the Jordan”. This is a major festival of the Eastern Churches, and has all sorts of folk customs associated with it: congregations go in procession to nearby bodies of water for a rite of blessing, and then, depending on the climate, the intrepid among them may seek the spiritual benefits of swimming in the newly-blessed waters. (I suspect that this is the real origin of the “polar bear swims”, which the secular world has transferred to New Year’s Day). Aside from the significance of this and other customs, though, the Theophany has a very particular theological importance, since it is an occasion when all three Persons of the Trinity reveal themselves to human perception together: the Father speaks from heaven, the Son is named beloved, and the Holy Spirit is seen descending as a dove.

So now, in our liturgical calendar, the observance of the Baptism of Christ marks a turning point in the celebration of the Incarnation. After Christmas and Epiphany, with their twin focus on the Messianic promise and the infant vulnerability of the incarnate Word, today’s Gospel compels us to focus our attention on the adult ministry of Jesus, to move forward from the extraordinary events described in the first chapters of Luke and Matthew to those events on which all four Gospels more-or-less agree. We move into what is called “ordinary time”, although that’s a slightly problematic name, since it reinforces the idea that Christmas is something which ends, rather than leading us forward to live out our part in the Incarnation. Reflecting on the baptism of Jesus makes a bridge for us into thinking about incarnational faith and life as they are oriented toward the future, our future. What does it mean to us, for us, today, and tomorrow, and the next day, that God is so intimately with us as to have taken on our flesh, our pains, our anxieties and sorrows, and the simple drooping weariness of bodies moving in time? What response does this gift call for from us?

Mark’s Gospel, which we read today, has a very short account of the baptism, but even this brief snapshot raises the potential question more fully explored by Matthew, what the American writer Dominic Crossan has called the “embarrassment” of the baptism of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, John asks the question at the core of the discomfort of the early Church with the idea that the sinless Son of God underwent a ritual for cleansing from sin. John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus responds, “…it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” The full righteousness, or holiness, of God is somehow to be revealed in this act of submission.

This exchange between Jesus and John prefigures, in a way, the temptations in the wilderness, not, of course, because John intends any evil, but because it presents an opportunity for Jesus to take a shortcut—to bypass ordinary human limitations and requirements, to reveal his identity through an exercise of authority simply for its own sake—an opportunity which he rejects. Jesus’ baptism, his descent into the water at the hands of another prophet, expresses his solidarity—his dwelling together—with the powerless humanity who came to be baptised by John, just as, in his refusal of the temptations in the wilderness, he is united with those who hunger, those who are vulnerable to injury, and those whose lives involve the constant humiliation of submitting to injustice and oppression. This is a God who is truly human, who is so intimately with us as to have taken on our flesh, our deprivations, our pains, our sorrows, and our wretchedness, in order that we might, united with him, transform and transcend them.

The readings today are chosen to emphasise the difference between the baptism of John, which was a baptism of repentance, and that of the church, which is also a baptism of the Holy Spirit; on one level, this echoes the distinction we try to make between the “functional” and the “inclusive” aspects of the sacrament—cleansing from sin and welcome into the Body of Christ. In today’s Gospel, though, we see that these are not precisely oppositional: we are brought to witness the moment when baptism itself is transformed, and all these elements are integrated. The descent of Jesus beneath the surface of the Jordan foreshadows his death and resurrection, and we recall this at every baptism, when we pray “Now sanctify this water, that your servants who are washed in it may be made one with Christ in his death and resurrection”. Jesus, in this action, takes on repentance not for any sins of his own, but for the world: repentance in the sense of metanoia, of turning and transformation. His baptism is also an echo of the Incarnation itself: the entry of the Word into the world of matter, humanity made vulnerable in that moment of uncertainty beneath the weight of water and then triumphant in rising, infusing the very elements with new life and holiness. And so it also recalls the creation of the world, when the creative Word called water and earth and air into being, and the breath of God moved upon the face of the waters, bringing order out of chaos.

The encounter on the bank of the Jordan is also a sign that Christ is involved with humanity in another way: the human hands of John baptised the Son of God; his lips offered whatever prayers the ritual may have included. And through the ages, human hands have poured the water of baptism, have broken and shared the Body of Christ; they bind what is broken, feed the hungry, build shelter, comfort the weary and despairing, and reach out in peace and love. Human voices proclaim the Gospel and call for justice, in our churches and in our world, and they do it for the sake of the Other who is Christ. Jesus came to John to be baptised and made known, not because God is in any way limited in self-revelation, but as a sign of invitation, a sign that we are to be included in the great incarnational task of making God known. As Saint Stephen’s moves forward not only into a new year, but into into a period of renewed life and energy, let’s all reflect on how we respond to this invitation.