The Baptism of Christ
8 January 2017
Today we keep the feast of the Baptism of Jesus. Because of the quirks of the church’s calendar, in which some festivals are coupled with a specific date like Christmas, others are based on specific Sundays, like this one, so that while we kept the great feast of the Epiphany on Friday we have now rushed on thirty years in the life of Jesus as we commemorate his Baptism in the Jordan today. These thirty years contains within it the childhood of Jesus and, going backwards even further, his escape into Egypt to avoid the murdering agents of King Herod.
The word “Epiphany” means a revelation, a making known publicly of what has been known by some, if not by many, all along; so helping us, the onlookers, to see more of the picture which gradually develops, not just in the Bible but in recorded human experience all down the ages. The feast of the Epiphany is also described as “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles”. Up to this point matters concerning the one to be born of a woman is within the small limits of the Jewish nation, now with the three mysterious visitors Jesus is made known as the one to be the “Saviour of the world”; they present their mysterious gifts and disappear but they are only the forerunners for the journeys of Paul and other apostles which, over many years, spread the good news all over the world, making Jesus Christ known, by words certainly but even more by example, as we shall be seeing. Here God is revealed as a baby, along with his doting parents and the saviour is revealed as one whose horizon is limited to the bountiful supply from his mother’s breasts and the removal of the soiled nappies which was probably Joseph’s main task! Jesus is a very human baby and not in any extraordinary way, whatever the circumstances of his birth might have been.
So we move on to today’s events and fast forward to thirty years when his by now well-known and rather feared cousin John is calling people to a baptism of repentance in the waters of the river Jordan. John saw himself as preparing the way for Jesus and was amazed when he turned up for baptism and cries out to his Lord and cousin that he, John, is the one who needs Baptism, for Jesus was without sin but, no, John has to go through it and what we might call the holy machinery is brought on to the stage, a voice from heaven and a dove and Jesus is immersed in the water. There are many reminders here of times when God spoke to the people of Israel; there is even the dove which reminds people of the time when the waters took charge. So this baptism is a significant sign; Jesus is, as they say, ”going public”, If he was without sin, then why did he go through this solemn ritual of forgiveness? This caused many of the early Fathers to scratch their heads too but two reasons surfaced and have remained. By going through with this, Jesus demonstrates his humanity – remember the dirty nappies? Even more importantly, because the waters have nothing to cleanse Jesus from they are themselves cleansed: it is, as it were, the Baptism of Water, all water, that utterly essential element for the sustenance of the whole world, let alone mankind. Jjust think how each of us is daily dependent on lots of water and what a smelly and itchy world it would be without it; no tea either, or beer, or life.
The ways in which the ministry of Jesus is still exercised is revealed in these festivals. They are all, each of them, an Epiphany, the birth, the wise men, the flight into Egypt, being one with all those who have to run from their homes and the example revealed by countless followers of Jesus right down the years, as the medieval poem sums it up “Where charity and love are, there is God”. Supremely in this service is the “Eucharist” the great thanksgiving when in obedience to his commands we eat the bread of his body and drink the wine of his blood. Surrounded with splendour, the building, the music, the fancy dress of the clergy but at the centre – and without which this would have no meaning at all – is the plate containing the bread and the cup of wine and we receive it as the “Body of Christ” and the “Blood of Christ” as Jesus commanded us, in a circle of charity and love which must bear fruit wherever Christian people are to be found. How to do it? Just ponder the life of Jesus and then ponder it again and again and again. How does my life match up with our contemplation of this? However, charity and love are NOT solely exercised by adult practising Christian men and women – thank God – and I want to end with a story.
One of the monks of Ampleforth was travelling in the rush hour from Kings Cross to Victoria and as he squeezed into the train at Kings Cross just behind him was a young family with two small boys clutching gold plated helium balloons so that all one could see of the boys was two golden balloons touching the roof the carriage. At Warren Street there was another smaller invasion with a couple and their daughter in a buggy; she was very distressed and hating the crowds and noise and so making a great deal of very sad noise herself. My informant then saw one of the golden balls moving down the carriage with a small and determined small boy at the other end. He pushed his way through, came up to the screaming little girl and said loud enough for many to hear “You look sad, would you like a balloon? He handed her the cord, at which the screaming stopped, the littler girl smiled and the small boy was re-joined with his parents. Then it was Oxford Circus and a very strange sight met those waiting on the platform, for out of this overcrowded train there came forth smiling passengers and two small boys with one helium balloon. They had all encountered God but that would probably not be their words and when Fr Dominic Milroy wrote up this story he headed it “Epiphany on the Jubilee Line.”