The Baptism of Christ ~ Starting over and over again...
Today is a rare festival for us: for we only celebrate the Baptism of Christ about every six years or so. The reason is that we usually celebrate the Epiphany on the Sunday after Epiphany, but last week we enjoyed the colour and splendour of our own three Kings – I mean wise men, or rather Magi on the day itself.
That leaves us clear to not displace the Baptism of Christ from its proper place as the first Sunday after Epiphany. Losing the celebration of it is a kind of shame, although our tendency here to baptize children during the main service does at least make up for the lack of focus on baptism at this time of year. But there should be a focus on baptism around now, because the baptism of Jesus is seen as one of the great three miracles of Christ’s revealing – the three epiphanies if you like, when Christ is shown – or shows himself to the world.
The first, last week, is the Epiphany itself –when the Magi show up with their meaningful gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – the three W’s for wisdom - signifying wealth, worship and witness. And then the second miracle is the Baptism of Christ – today’s focus. And next week we shall hear of the Wedding at Cana, the story of Jesus changing water into wine, what the prayer book marriage service famously describes as ‘the first miracle that he wrought’. More of that next week! But today, rarely, properly, we are in the midst of that marvellous trilogy, and have an opportunity to put the Baptism of Jesus into its proper context.
And there could not be a better year to do it, for us. For some here will remember and others will know, that forty of us were at the site of the baptism of Christ a couple of months ago. Yes it really is that recently, although feels a very long way away and a long time ago that we blistered in the 100 degree heat in early November!
It was our final full day, and we went on a mini-pilgrimage within the greater one as we toured the site, now in a militarized zone, in which both sites of the baptism are situated. I say both because the water has changed its course, so one can visit a dry place where the baptism likely actually occurred, and one can move on to visit the place where the current river flows, and where there are stations on both sides – in Israel and Jordan, for folk to either be baptized in the river, or to renew their vows by immersing themselves. Plenty of people were doing that when we were there.
And then there were the Anglicans like us, who barely touched the flowing stream but preferred to sit in a circle around a font in which there was baptismal water. Some of us brought some of that water home, and baby Rahim Joshua was even baptized with some of it just before Christmas. We sat around that font and held a service in which we renewed our vows.
But before we did that, we went around the group sharing the stories, or at least the bare facts of our own baptisms. Having arrived at our destination – the River Jordan – we tuned and looked over our shoulders at the journey we had made, the spiritual journey we had made to that time and place – the journey of which this renewing event was simply one of many destinations on the way. For we are all on spiritual journeys, all our lives.
We were reminded of T S Eliot’s poetic thought that the goal of all our exploring shall be to arrive at the place we started and know it for the first time. Or, perhaps more mundanely, I’m reminded of a philosophy lecturer I had, who when faced with the thought that philosophy was a waste of time because it doesn’t produce answers, but prefers to ask questions, said that one does not complain when one has been on a round the world trip, that it was boring because one arrived where one started! It’s what you see on the way, he used to say. That is what is important. The journey, not so much the destination.
So I wondered about what Jesus would have said, had he been gathered with us around our Jordanian font, recollecting the stories of our journeys to date? As his Baptism by John marks the beginning of the journey of his adult ministry, we might be reminded that all our journeys have several starting points – points in our lives when we restart our journey as it were, or when our journey takes a new direction – a spiritual right turn perhaps.
But what story would Jesus have told as he sat there, about to enter a three year period of ministry that would seem to end on the Cross only to restart fantastically on Easter Day? At this second Epiphany miraculous occasion, what would he have told us, about his beginnings?
Theologically, of course, he would have started where St John was to start: ‘In the beginning was the Word’. Here is Christ, the first-born of all creation: immortal, invisible, wise, incarnate God. Alice in Wonderland, when asked by Humpty Dumpty to tell her story, asked, ‘where shall I begin, to which he replied, ‘begin at the beginning’. It's so obvious, but we don't always think of it. Start at the beginning - the beginning of everything that is. Start at the Big Bang.
Where was Jesus at the Big Bang? Well, right in the middle of it, of course. That’s what ‘In the beginning was the Word’, means. Or, to put it less prosaically, Professor Keith Ward rather wittily asked in a book a few years back: ‘what was God doing at the Big Bang?’, to which the answer is that God literally had no time to do anything before the Big Bang. Hard to get our heads round it in so many ways, it is actually quite simple - for whatever was going on at or in the Big Bang, whatever happened, God, in Christ, was in the thick of it. Whatever utterance it was that said, ‘go, bang’, God was behind, in and before it, letting and making it be.
So Jesus’ story begins at the beginning. And if he were sitting with us around that font on Jordan’s bank, and we asked him to tell us about his baptism, we might have found that for Jesus, as for all of us, there is a beginning to our story, but then there are other beginnings that happen as we journey through life. And it so happens that his baptism was actually one of his later beginnings.
For the second beginning he might have told us about, we have recently been celebrating – Christmas. Christmas is about the nativity – the birth of Jesus, of course. Put like that, it can have those slightly romanticized overtones of babies in managers, shepherds in fields and overcrowded inns and stables. Nothing wrong with that, but in focusing on nativity – on birth, we must not overlook the idea of incarnation. Incarnation is a theological beginning, relating to the divine, and connects to what I said about the Big Bang. Nativity is about birth, and relates to the human condition into which Jesus found himself born two millennia ago.
It’s a second beginning, from which one might start again. For just as we shared stories from our earliest days around the font on Jordan’s bank, Jesus began his earthly life not far from there, and had a fairly tumultuous entry into the world. A pregnant woman, who having trekked to Bethlehem with her fiancé, on the understanding that he would keep his promise to marry her, only to discover that conventional hospitality for guests was not available, finds that the extremely dangerous, dodgy, dirty business of giving birth was not going to made any easier. Into that Jesus is born, and all heaven breaks loose, with angels singing, and shepherds abiding. Jesus probably can’t remember it, but he was undoubtedly told about it later by his mum, who, let’s be honest was probably in a constant state of shock for the first few months of his life. Nevertheless, they manage to get the Jewish rituals seen to – circumcision happens as it should, and then when he’s forty days old they’re off to the Temple to make an offering of two doves and present him to the Lord in prayer and thanksgiving. And then it’s back to Nazareth to settle down.
Except it isn’t: for if we read carefully, it seems that they must have returned to Bethlehem, because when the wise men showed up, the Presentation in the Temple must have already happened, but they were still in Bethlehem, still in a house there, according to the narrative.
So, another story about his early life that Jesus might have told, concerns this showing of himself to the wise men – gentile astrologers from Persia. Again he might not remember it, but his mother probably told him – and others, about the three gifts, all that gold! And incense and myrrh: Expensive, meaningful stuff it was. It’s a good start – boding well.
But then these strange visitors have a premonition about not returning to Herod the King, and after various warnings, the Holy Family had to flee to Egypt. Another beginning – a new life in North Africa, in the land of exile, a great hiding place. A hiding place from the terrors of Herod, who decides to have every boy under 2 brutally murdered. Part of Jesus’ story is that many little boys died in his place. How would you carry a thought like that through your life? It would damage you, not a little.
Not surprisingly the Holy Family spend a decent while in Egypt, before finally making their way to Nazareth – a proper home town, where another new beginning could be made, and relative peace and quiet could prevail for the next 25 years or so. Although there was to be that incident in the Temple in Jerusalem, where the twelve year old Jesus got left behind.
But now, we’re at the water’s edge, and cousin John is being ever so humble and is reluctant to do for Jesus what he has done for so many others. Yet Jesus, who has travelled many journeys, and begun various beginnings up to this point, seeks a new beginning, a new beginning echoing that which for all of us, baptism represents. Different as he is, he does not wish to be treated differently. The human in him wants to be treated like one of us.
Amen, let it be so. And it is so. Except that then everyone saw a brand new beginning. For this common baptism becomes the launch of the new beginning that is the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry. Temptations will follow, as will miracles and parables, and finally crucifixion, and resurrection. It all starts here.
Except, as I hope to have shown, it’s a bit more complex than that. Baptism is, for all of us, one of many beginnings, but it is the most important beginning on our journey. And that is true whether we are only a few hours old, as I was, when I was baptized, or whether it happens at thirty, as it did for Jesus, or at ninety. And we go on with our various beginnings as we go through life, renewing and refreshing ourselves, mentally, spiritually, physically even. It’s remarkable what losing weight or having a new hip can do for you!
Some of our new beginnings are forced on us, others chosen: leaving home, marriage, parenthood, career change, divorce, bereavement, widowhood. All involve radical change, which we might not welcome. But welcome it we must, for we cannot shut it out, hard as that might be.
So let’s remember that as we look back, not only at Jesus’ baptism by John, which we celebrate today, but also as we look back at our own chosen, and forced beginnings. When were the various beginnings on your journey? What did they do to and for you? Did you invite or welcome them? And how do you feel now?
May the Lord, in his love, shine his light of wisdom and understanding on you as you ponder these things in the coming weeks of the Epiphany season.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 13/01/13