The Baptism of Christ
You think it’s all over?!
The Pantomime season may be over – oh no it’s not – oh yes it is…
But Christmas is not. The eastern Churches have only just celebrated Christmas this week – on January 6th – and we still have four weeks to go. Don’t sigh – for now the fun begins. The theological and spiritual fun that is. We might be slimming down, heading off to the gym or going vegetarian or even vegan, but now is the proper season for Christmas and Epiphany reflection, with the tinsel off and the wrapping thrown away. We’ve done Christmas the worldly way, the way in which Dickens and his successors have blessed us, whereby Christmas is buried under food, wine, gifting, secret santa, motorway hold ups, holly, ivy and mistletoe. We’ve done the pagan Crimbo, so now we can think a bit about what it all really means while the press, media and once a year churchgoers are not telling us what to say, do or believe. I was horrified to be shown a Telegraph article the other day that stated ‘facts’ about Twelfth Night, which included stating that St Matthew tells us that the Three Kings were called Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. I was so annoyed that I flamed them on Twitter, wondering whether truth and journalism had ceased to have any kind of relationship whatsoever.
There is a lot of rubbish generated at Christmas, woe betide our planet, and there is a lot of rubbish talked at Christmas, woe betide our faith. And as soon as we lose interest in the truth of something, we cease to take it seriously. And it is a shame that so many people do not take Christmas seriously and are happy to sign up to, if not believe, both the literal and metaphorical rubbish that is generated. Both need to be recycled.
The Season of Epiphany, which is what Christmas evolves into around January 6th, traditionally focusses on not only the visit of the Magi, but on the Baptism of Jesus and the miracle of the changing of water into wine. For all the talk of Twelfth Night, Epiphany is not simply January 6th: Wise Men arrive, over and out.
In the Church we have a perennial problem which is that society in general tends to treat theological points of arrival as destinations and moves on swiftly. Like a running tap or flowing river, we are borne forward on an ever-increasing surge of calendrical dates. And each one is seen as a destination, an arrival point from which to swiftly depart. The shop windows would have us believe that Christmas ended on December 25th. Christmas gives way to January sales (some of which start before Christmas), and New Year gives way to a month-long presales hype for Valentine’s Day. I noticed yesterday that Pearsons are already selling Valentine’s Day gifts. That makes way for Mothering Sunday (which so many people call Mother’s Day, which is actually an American invention and happens in May), and then the Easter eggs are out in serried ranks. In fact, I also noticed in in Waitrose in Enfield Town, the chocolate easter eggs and bunnies are already on display. There is a church liturgical year on which the chocolate year is loosely based, but beginnings have become endings.
This means there is little incentive, or time, to pause and reflect on any of the events one has built up to, and it might even be true to say that this has had an adverse impact on society at large, such that as a nation we have become unreflective, unpausing, always hastening on to the next thing. We live hectic lives in the twenty-first century as it is, but the way we are whisked from one thing to the next creates a cultural norm in which ‘life is one damned thing after another’, as Mark Twain is wrongly accused of having said. Our fast-paced journey through life is like an express train on which we are always being told what the ‘next’ station is, but there is never enough time to actually get off and have a look around before it whizzes off for the next destination. We are always told where we are going, but never where we have been. If we have been, it is gone.
Yet it is a circular route, and as every year passes we seem to arrive at Christmas ever quicker than before. There is a mathematical reason for this: each of our years is proportionally shorter than the preceding ones, so it is mathematically true that time goes quicker and our lives do speed up. This has a real impact, on stress, mental health and wellbeing. For some the increasing flow of life and the associated time pressures cause real difficulty. So we need seasons in which to reflect, to not only lead us towards an event, but to lead us away gracefully.
It is this graceful, reflective departure that we can so easily lose. We need the Christmas season to extend beyond the mad rush that precedes it and displaces Advent. We need it personally, mentally, spiritually and theologically. Life should not be like a running tap whereby everything is washed away at a rate of knots.
In the Eastern Church both the Nativity and the Baptism of Christ are still celebrated on 6 January, and this reminds us that the separation of Christmas and Epiphany is a calendrical phenomenon. In the Western Church the baptism of Jesus is usually celebrated as one of the Epiphany season ‘signs’ on the Sunday after Epiphany – so here we are today. Sometimes it gets displaced or forgotten. It is important because we see Jesus going to the River Jordan to be baptised by John, who in doing so, reluctantly it seems, bows out of his preparatory ministry. John’s task was to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’, and now, at the Jordan, the Lord has arrived. This is a great epiphany (revealing) of Jesus as the Spirit settles and the voice from heaven proclaims “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” If this is not a revelatory endorsement of Messiahship, then little else can be. From this moment it is official, John can ‘decrease as Jesus increases’, he has done his job as warm up act, and Jesus will now take centre stage in the glare of the Holy Spiritual spotlight. John’s season is over and he gracefully withdraws as the season of Christ begins.
The moment of handover is significant, but like Christmas itself, it has been well-prepared for, and while John recedes in prominence, he does not turn his back and run. Even in the flowing water of the Jordan, he is not washed away to become irrelevant or forgotten. As in a relay race, after a baton is passed, the runner keeps running, slowing down in a controlled, appropriate way. We find it in business too, and this is sometimes called ‘succession planning’ or ‘succession management’, and it is vital to the smooth running of an organisation as it ebbs and flows through new phases of growth and development. Good handovers are vital. It is true of churches too.
Some analysts, following the theory of Charles Handy, talk of the ‘J curve’, a natural graphical illustration of how organisations grow, peak and decline a bit before rejuvenation. Handover and changes need to take place at the right point on the curve. When John hands over to Jesus there are two ‘J’ curves which intersect beautifully at the moment of baptism when the Holy Spirit descends. The J of John and the J of Jesus connect as their journeys join.
One is going upwards, the other downwards. As they intersect faith takes a new upward, heavenward direction.
The same is sort of true of the Christmas Season, it may appear we are on the downward slope away, but actually we are not, we are turning upward towards Candlemas. We need the Christmas season to continue and we need Epiphanical revealings within it to help us truly remember and take into ourselves the living water of faith opened up and grace poured out for the whole world.
So let us continue to enjoy Christmas, and to reflect on the greater revealings of Jesus to the world, exemplified in the visit of the magi, the baptism by John at the Jordan, and the changing of water into wine. Let us keep the Tree and Crib here and the Christmas candle burning as a pure light to burn away the rubbish in which we wrapped up Christmas in colourful, but absurd ways. And let us remember the pure light of Christ, revealed as a light to the gentiles and all nations, the pure light of living, faith, hope and love.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, DD/MM/YY